Two cures for racism!

by Andrew Gelman on March 8, 2012 · 2 comments

in Experimental Analysis,Public opinion,Science

It’s an unusual day when we come across two cures for racism on the same day.

First, from the Columbia political science department’s comparative politics seminar, The End of Prejudice: An Experimental Study of Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation, by Andrej Tusicisny:

This paper develops and tests a new model explaining under what conditions people from different ethnic groups cooperate and under what conditions they discriminate against an outgroup. It also uncovers what may be the true causal mechanism underlying the famous contact hypothesis. 402 subjects sampled from the slums of Mumbai, India, participated in a randomized experiment that tested the theory. The experiment showed that (1) people cooperate if they believe that their partner will reciprocate their cooperative behavior; (2) people use their partner’s ethnicity as an information shortcut to predict how likely reciprocity is; and, most importantly, (3) observation of individuals’ real behavior can change the stereotypical beliefs about groups. Once expectations of reciprocity were successfully manipulated, ethnically heterogeneous groups produced as much – or as little – public goods as the homogenous ones. The experiment demonstrated that it is in fact fairly easy to rationally update deep-rooted stereotypes of outgroups even by a short social interaction. Information updating led not only to more cooperation in public goods games, but also to a radical change in self-reported discriminatory attitudes towards the outgroup as a whole. For example, the number of Hindus who would never accept a Muslim as a neighbor dropped by 56%. Practical implications of the study can guide us in designing better institutions to prevent conflict and increase public goods provision in multiethnic societies.

Second, and on the very same day, from a news report in the Daily Telegraph (found here):

Volunteers given the beta-blocker, used to treat chest pains and lower heart rates, scored lower on a standard psychological test of “implicit” racist attitudes. They appeared to be less racially prejudiced at a subconscious level than another group treated with a “dummy” placebo pill. . . . Experimental psychologist Dr Sylvia Terbeck, from Oxford University, who led the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology, said: “Our results offer new evidence about the processes in the brain that shape implicit racial bias. . . .”

On the other hand,

Dr Chris Chambers, from the University of Cardiff’s School of Psychology, said the results should be viewed with “extreme caution”. He said: “. . . we can’t rule out the possibility that the effects were due to the drug incidentally reducing heart rate. So although interesting, in my view these preliminary results are a long way from suggesting that propranolol specifically influences racial attitudes.”


The scientists wrote: “The main finding of our study is that propranolol significantly reduced implicit but not explicit racial bias.”

The sample size was 36, and, as we all know, statistical significance doesn’t always mean very much.

Just to be on the safe side, maybe it would be best to do a bit of information updating . . . and take the pill.


Darren Schreiber March 10, 2012 at 1:12 am

The results of the Mumbai study fit nicely with a paper by Rob Kurzban in PNAS in 2001 entitled Can Race Be Erased? where he shows that when coalition membership is more salient than race the tendency to categorize on race is diminished (this doesn’t work for gender). The results also fit with a pair of brain imaging studies I’ve done showing that when subjects are presented only with faces they have typical amygdala related activations for Black faces, but when presented with images of people in more naturalistic contexts the pattern of brain activation appears to cue off of whether the other person is a violator of mainstream social norms (gang member, homeless, criminal) rather than a norm supporter (families, professionals, doctors). The second study is coming out in Political Psychology.

Andrew Gelman March 10, 2012 at 11:08 pm


Interesting. One thing that came up in the discussion of Andrej’s talk was the persistence (of lack thereof) of any effects. Would they show up a month later, etc?

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