Prejudice Does Not Pay – At Least Some of the Time

Even a quick study of U.S. demography reveals that the United States is daily becoming less white and more diverse. One significant fact this demography raises is how people now deal with increasing diversity and how will they deal with it in the future. Especially those white Americans with the power and privilege. One recent social psychological study of 50 white college students by psychologists Jennifer A. Richeson and J. Nicole Shelton found that interracial interactions are especially difficult for whites who hold very prejudiced views of racial outgroups (Jennifer A. Richeson and J. Nicole Shelton, “When Prejudice Does Not Pay: Effects of Interracial Contact on Executive Function,” Psychological Science 14 (MAY 2003): 287-290). As the researchers note:

“…the results of the current study suggest that after leaving intergroup interactions, prejudiced individuals may be more likely than others to underperform on tasks that require executive control. Specifically, we found that high-prejudice White participants who engaged in an interracial interaction had impaired performance on the Stroop [color/word matching] task—a task requiring executive control—compared with both high-prejudice participants who interacted with a White person and low-prejudice participants.”

Their measure of racial bias was a relatively unconscious one. They used an Implicit Association Test (IAT) in which they assessed whether subjects associated stereotypically white and black names with either pleasant or unpleasant words by pressing marked response keys. Differences in response times were used to measure implicit favoring of one racial category over another.

Such research has significant implications for everyday life. These researchers interpret their data using an energy model, one termed a “resource model of executive function.” This suggests that engaging in an exercise involving energetic self-control, such as interacting with racial others viewed negatively, can have a temporary negative impact on one’s ability to do a second important task.

Thus, highly prejudiced people often pay a significant price for their strong racist stereotyping and framing, and can likely increase their ability to function in a diverse society by significantly reducing the strength of their prejudiced views. The researchers prefer a narrow interpretation of their findings:

“The negative effect of intergroup contact on cognitive functioning may dissipate after repeated interactions with the same stigmatized persons. Furthermore, in many cases, the motives and roles of participants during an interaction will shape their contact experiences . . . and, therefore, the effect (if any) on subsequent executive capacity.”

Nonetheless, the results do add yet another piece of evidence about how high the price of systemic racism is for whites. While the price is certainly not nearly as high as for those targeted by this such oppression, there is a very significant price to be paid by racism’s primary maintainers.