Posted on April 2, 2008

Fear of Messing Up May Cause Whites to Avoid Blacks

BJS, Science Blog, April 1, 2008


Now a provocative new study from Northwestern University suggests that whites who are particularly worried about appearing racist seem to suffer from anxiety that instinctively may cause them to avoid interaction with blacks in the first place.

“The Threat of Appearing Prejudiced and Race-based Attentional Biases,” by Jennifer A. Richeson, associate professor of psychology and African-American studies and faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) at Northwestern, and Sophie Trawalter, post-doctoral fellow, IPR, recently appeared in the journal Psychological Science.

Study participants indicated that they worry about inadvertently getting in trouble for somehow seeming biased. As a result, the study suggests, they behaved in a way that research shows people respond when faced with stimuli that cause them to feel threatened or anxious: they instinctively look at what is making them feel nervous and then ignore it.

In this case, study participants, 15 white college students, indicated that they were motivated to respond in non-prejudiced ways toward blacks primarily for appearance’s sake because of concern about social disapproval—rather than because of their internal values.

They then took a standard psychological test that measures attention patterns related to anxiety provoking or threatening stimuli. The white students initially focused on images of black faces with neutral expressions, relative to white faces with similar expressions, and then quickly disengaged and paid greater attention to the white faces.

Participants who were selected for the study first had to complete a Motivation to Respond Without Prejudice Scale. Those who were selected had scores that indicated that they were externally, rather than internally, motivated to not appear racially biased. On a one-to-nine scale, they rated their agreement with statements that included: “Because of today’s politically correct standards, I try to appear non-prejudiced toward black people.”

They then participated in a computer test that featured in all the trials a black face and a white face, with either similar neutral expressions or similar happy expressions. Theoretically, they shouldn’t have paid attention to either of the two faces, one black and one white, appearing on either side of the computer screen, because they were told to keep their attention fixated on a cross in the middle of the screen. But, as expected, they inevitably turned their attention to the faces. Because everything happened so fast, however, they weren’t aware that they had paid different amounts of attention to black faces, compared to the white faces.


“Think of it as initially turning your attention to something that poses a threat or causes anxiety and then ignoring it because you don’t want to deal with it,” said Richeson. “These low-level psychological processes happen dynamically, and our tests indicate that people probably avoided the neutral black faces because they provoke anxiety, not necessarily because of racial animus.”

Patterns of attentional biases were eliminated when the faces were smiling. Well-established clinical and cognitive psychology research shows that people process expressions of emotion quickly, and presumably black male faces with smiling expressions did not seem threatening or provoke anxiety.


Richeson’s study draws from a body of such clinical psychology research on threat and attention. Basically, that research shows that people who have anxiety about various stimuli in everyday life tend to ignore what is stressing them out, unlike people with clinical anxiety, who tend to fixate on what triggers their anxiety.


[Editor’s Note: “The Threat of Appearing Prejudiced and Race-Based Attentional Biases,” by Jennifer A. Richeson and Sophie Trawalter can be read on-line or downloaded here. A purchase or subscription is required.]

* Department of Psychology and C2S: The Center on Social Disparities and Health at the Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University

Address correspondence to Jennifer A. Richeson, Department of Psychology, Northwestern University, Swift Hall, 2029 Sheridan Rd., Evanston, IL 60208, e-mail: [email protected]


The current work tested whether external motivation to respond without prejudice toward Blacks is associated with biased patterns of selective attention that reflect a threat response to Black individuals. In a dot-probe attentional bias paradigm, White participants with low and high external motivation to respond without prejudice toward Blacks (i.e., low-EM and high-EM individuals, respectively) were presented with pairs of White and Black male faces that bore either neutral or happy facial expressions; on each trial, the faces were displayed for either 30 ms or 450 ms. The findings were consistent with those of previous research on threat and attention: High-EM participants revealed an attentional bias toward neutral Black faces presented for 30 ms, but an attentional bias away from neutral Black faces presented for 450 ms. These attentional biases were eliminated, however, when the faces displayed happy expressions. These findings suggest that high levels of external motivation to avoid prejudice result in anxious arousal in response to Black individuals, and that this response affects even basic attentional processes.