Tag Archives: biology

Racial Bias and Media Coverage of Violent Crime

Studies of Americans’ unconscious beliefs shows that most people — white and black — think black people are dangerous and both average folks and police are quicker to shoot black than white people.

Where does the cognitive belief that black people are dangerous come from?

Partly, it comes from the media. A new study by Color of Change found that, while 51% of the people arrested for violent crime in New York City are black, 75% of the news reports about such arrests highlighted black alleged perpetrators.

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Meanwhile, when people of color are arrested, they are more likely to be portrayed in ways that make them seem threatening than white people. This happened this week:

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See also, portrayals of Mark Duggan and Mike Brown.

Each time we see a black person on TV who is linked with a violent crime or portrayed as a criminal, the neurons in our brain that link blackness with criminality fire. The same for people of other races. The more often a link is triggered, the stronger it becomes. Disproportionate reporting like the kind captured in this study make the neural links in our brain — it’s actual physical structure — reflect the racism inherent in the reporting itself.

These associations, unfortunately, are pre-conscious. Those neurons fire faster than we can suppress them with our conscious mind. So, even if we believe in our heart-of-hearts that these connections are unfair or untrue, our unconscious is busy making the associations anyway. Biased reporting, in other words, changes the minds of viewers, literally.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Social Learning in Action: Baby Gives CPR

It’s always a treat to find a good candidate for our series on babies-who-totally-learn-how-to-do-things. In previous editions, we’ve featured a baby rapperbaby preacher, baby worshipper, and two babies mimicking a conversation.

These videos are entertaining because they’re babies, but the message their actions send is more than just adorable. They remind us of how deeply cultural we are as human beings.

In this edition, baby gives CPR:

There’s nothing natural about giving CPR. There’s no gene, no evolutionary push for that behavior, no particular brain organization, and no special mix or hormones that can explain why that baby can mimic the steps of cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Instead, that baby is learning.

Learning is coded in our genes. We’re deeply and naturally flexible that way, able to learn whatever our particular culture needs and values. Many people make biologically deterministic arguments — ones that draw a causal arrow from our biology to our behavior — but that’s usually wrong. More often, we are biologically designed to be contingent, our behavior is naturally dependent on whatever it is in the world that we encounter.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

That’s Fishy: From Scent to Suspicion and Back

2Earlier this year I reviewed a study that found that, simply by changing the weight of an object in hand, psychologists can manipulate how seriously a person takes an issue.  In other words, when holding something heavy, matters seem heavy.  Or, concerns seem weightier when one is weighed down.

Thanks to an email from USC professor Norbert Schwarz, I was introduced to a whole series of studies on what psychologists call metaphorical effects.  These are instances in which a metaphor commonly used to describe a psychological state or social reality can, in turn, induce that state or reality.  So, for example, holding a warm cup of coffee makes people feel warmly toward each other (here), getting the cold shoulder makes people feel cold (here), people placed in a high location seem to be high in a hierarchy (here), and cleaning one’s hands makes a person feel morally clean (here).

Schwarz was the co-author, with Spike W.S. Lee, on another example of a metaphorical effect.  They wanted to know if smelling something fishy made people suspicious.  It did!

Asked to participate in a fake study on whether they’d be willing to invest money in a scheme, subjects who were exposed to a fishy smell invested less than those exposed to no smell and less than those exposed to another icky smell that was “metaphorically irrelevant”: fart.

From sensory perception to psychological state.  Boom.

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Lee and Schwarz were also interested in the reverse process.  Did being suspicious increase the likelihood that they would identify a fishy smell as fishy.  Sometimes smells can be hard to figure out, but when people are primed with the answer, they are more likely to get it right.  Would the metaphorical effect work in the other direction: from psychological state to sensory perception?

They asked another group of subjects to sniff five different vials and attempt to label each smell.  Half the time, they induced suspiciousness by having the experimenter say: “Obviously, it’s a very simple task and, you know, there’s . . . there’s nothing we’re trying to hide here.”  The experimented would then spot a document on the table, whisk it away nervously and repeat:

Sorry, it shouldn’t have been there. But . . . ahem . . . anyway. Where was I? Oh yes, it’s all very simple. There’s nothing we’re trying to hide or anything.

Did subjects induced to be suspicious identify the fishy smell correctly more often?  Yep!

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This is a fun literature, but it has serious implications.  It reveals that the associations we have in our minds impact how we perceive the world and each other.

Sociologists believe that essentially all of life is socially constructed, meaning that we collectively learn and internalize arbitrary connections between things: like being male and computing or being black and athleticism.  These connections literally structure our brain, such that thinking about one is likely to trigger thoughts of the other.

Fishy and suspicious are connected in our minds and, so, when we are exposed to one, we are more likely to experience the other.  In other cultures, Lee and Schwarz point out, it is not fishiness, but other smells that are associated with suspicion.  These things are not natural or universal, but they drive our perceptions nonetheless.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Concern for Equality Linked to Logic, Not Emotion

2A new study finds that people with high “justice sensitivity” are using logic, not emotions.  Subjects were put in a fMRI machine, one that measures ongoing brain activity and shown videos of people acting kindly or cruelly toward a homeless person.

Some respondents reacted more strongly than others — hence the high versus low justice sensitivity — and an analysis of the high sensitivity individuals’ brain activity showed that they were processing the images in the parts of the brain where logic and rationality live.   “Individuals who are sensitive to justice and fairness do not seem to be emotionally driven,” explained one of the scientists, “Rather, they are cognitively driven.”

So, no:

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Activists aren’t angry, they reasonably object to unjust circumstances that they understand all too well.

Image borrowed from Jamie Keiles at Teenagerie, who is a high sensitivity individual.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

When Wild Animals Use Human Technology… and the End of Times

Forgive me, because this is probably better left to Cyborgology, but something amazing is happening here. In the video below, nesting swallows become trapped in a building when they add doors. The birds soon learn, though, that they can get the doors to automatically open by triggering the motion sensors. This is a story, obviously, of how smart birds are, but here’s what struck me: we often think about human technology as for humans. In this case, however, birds adapted the technology for their own very similar needs (to get in and out).

If the workers had installed an older human technology — plain old doors — the birds would have been out of luck because they don’t have thumbs and the strength to manipulate an environment built for humans. But motion activated doors make both thumbs and strength irrelevant, so now birds are our functional equals.

This is fascinating, yeah? Our technology has advanced to the point where we’re potentially undermining our own evolutionary advantages. I’m not putting a moral judgment on it. I think morality is firmly on the side of non-fitness based decisions (eh em, social Darwinism). If one wants to theorize the relationship between animals, technology, and what it means to be human, however, this looks like gold to me.

Okay Cyborgology, your turn.

Thanks to Reuben S. for the tip! Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

“Black and White Twins” and the Social Construction of Race

Flashback Friday.

This remarkable newspaper article illustrates how skin color (which is real) gets translated into categorical racial categories (which are not).  The children in the images below — Kian and Remee Hodgson — are fraternal twins born to two bi-racial parents:

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The story attempts to explain the biology:

Skin colour is believed to be determined by up to seven different genes working together. If a woman is of mixed race, her eggs will usually contain a mixture of genes coding for both black and white skin. Similarly, a man of mixed race will have a variety of different genes in his sperm. When these eggs and sperm come together, they will create a baby of mixed race.  But, very occasionally, the egg or sperm might contain genes coding for one skin colour. If both the egg and sperm contain all white genes, the baby will be white. And if both contain just the versions necessary for black skin, the baby will be black.

Fair enough.

But then the journalist makes a logical leap from biological determinants of skin color to racial categories. Referring now to genes for skin color as “black” and “white” genes, she writes: “Baby Kian must have inherited the black genes from both sides of the family, whilst Remee inherited the white ones.”  And, of course, while both children are, technically, mixed race*, the headline to the story, “Black and White Twins,” presents them as separate races.

We’re so committed to racial differences that the mother actually speaks about their similarities as if it is surprising that twins of different “races” could possibly have anything in common.  She says:

There are some similarities between them. They both love apples and grapes, and their favourite television programme is Teletubbies.”

This is also a nice example of a U.S.-specific racial logic. This might not have been a story in Brazil at all, where racial categories are determined more by color alone and less by who your parents are.  It is not uncommon there to have siblings of various racial designations.

The twins, by the way, are seven now.

* Of course, identifying them as mixed race also re-inscribes racial categories in that you must believe in two or more racial categories to believe that it is possible to mix them.

Originally posted in 2008.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

That’s “Heavy”: The Mind-Body-Metaphor Connection

Last year I was tickled to write about a cool study showing that, if a person grows up with a language that writes from left to right, then numerical estimates of things like weight or height will, on average, be smaller when a person is imperceptibly and unknowingly leaning to the left.  Seriously, it’s awesomely fun research and you can read about it here.

Today I have the equally fun pleasure of sharing a research study on weight and importance.  It turns out that, when people are holding something heavy, they will report an issue to be more serious, compared to when they are holding something lighter.

Some examples come from a set of studies by psychologist Nils Jostmann and colleagues.

  • In the first study, European participants were asked to guess the value of various foreign currency in euros.  Some were given a heavy clipboard on which to mark their estimates, and others a light clipboard.  Those who held the light clipboard estimated, on average, lesser values.
  • In a second study, subjects were asked to estimate the importance of college students having a voice in a decision-making process involving grants to study abroad.  Participants with the heavy clipboard felt that it was more important for students to have a voice.
  • In a third, subjects were asked to report whether they liked their city after reading a biography of the mayor and indicating how the felt about him.  If they carried the heavy clipboard, there was a relationship between their estimation of the mayor and that of the city, but not if they carried a light clipboard.  In this case, the importance of their feelings about the mayor weighed heavier on their evaluation of the city if the clipboard was heavy.

What is driving these findings?

In English, and several other languages as well, weight is used as metaphor to signify importance.  The authors hypothesized that this abstraction can be triggered by concrete experiences of weight, like holding something heavy.  They call this “embodied cognition.”  Our thinking is affected by the connection between our bodies, their relationship with objects, and metaphors in our minds.

Another nail in the Descartian mind-body dualism coffin.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Wanna Be in the NBA? It Helps to Grow Up Rich

Part of what makes professional basketball appealing, for kids who love to play as well as fans, is the idea that a person can come from humble beginnings and become a star.  The players on the court, the narrative goes, are ones who rose to fame as a result of incredible dedication and extraordinary talent.  Basketball, then, is a way out of poverty, a true equal opportunity sport that affirms what we think America is all about.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz crunched the numbers to find out if the equal opportunity story was true.   Analyzing the economic background of NBA players, he found that growing up in a wealthy neighborhood (the top 40% of household incomes) is a “major, positive predictor” for success in professional basketball.  Black players are also less likely than the general black male population to have been born to a young or single mother.  So, class privilege is an advantage for pro ball players, just like it is elsewhere in our economy.

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The richest Black men, then, are most likely to end up in the NBA, followed by those in the bottom 20% of neighborhoods by income.  Middle class black men may, like many middle class white men, see college as a more secure route to a successful future.  Research shows that poor black men often see sports as a more realistic route out of poverty than college (and they may not be wrong).  This also helps explain why Jews dominated professional basketball in the first half of the 1900s.

LeBron James was right, then, when he said, “I’m LeBron James. From Akron, Ohio. From the inner city. I am not even supposed to be here.”  The final phrase disrupts our mythology about professional basketball: that being poor isn’t an obstacle if one has talent and drive.  But, as Stephens-Davidowitz reminds us, “[a]nyone from a difficult environment, no matter his athletic prowess, has the odds stacked against him.”

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.