Posted on December 18, 2009

TV Clips Reveal Racist Body Language, Study Finds

Joseph Hall, Toronto Star, December 18, 2009

Researchers at Tufts University say negative body language between black and white characters in TV dramas studied, such as House, above, was clear in recent experiments.

Racist body language comes through loud and clear on television, even when the sound is off, a new study shows.

Through a set of ingeniously concocted experiments, reported Friday in the journal Science, researchers show that white characters in television series display far more negative body language toward their black peers than to members of their own race.

The bias conveyed by these body clues is not only recognized subconsciously by people who watch the shows, but significantly influences their feelings about the black characters.

“Sadly, we observed that non-verbal race bias is a typical pattern on scripted television shows,” lead study author Max Weisbuch said in a release on the paper.

“White characters are treated better across the board and this has an impact on viewers,” said Weisbuch, a post-doctoral psychologist at Massachusetts’s Tufts University.

In the first experiment, researchers used clips from 11 television programs–including Bones, Grey’s Anatomy, CSI and Scrubs–and digitally removed one of the characters participating in the scenes.

They then muted any onscreen conversations and recruited college students who had never seen the episodes to watch.

“We took out the target character, who was either black or white, and the (remaining) character was always white,” senior study author Nalini Ambady said in an interview with the Star.

“Then we just showed people and said ‘how much does this person like the person they’re interacting with?'” said Ambady, a Tufts social psychologist.

The viewers, it was found, consistently judged the body language expressed by the visible white characters as more negative whenever the unseen character in the scene was black.

Ambady stresses that the black characters in the scenes selected were not criminals or impoverished, as often seen on television.

Instead, the scenes came from enlightened series that portray blacks as social and intellectual peers.

“Take a medical drama for example, both the black and the white characters were doctors,” Ambady said. Yet while the negative body language is certainly not scripted, she was not sure if it reflects innate reactions by the white actors, is directorial in origin, or a combination of both.

“There’s no bias in what they’re saying, the bias seems to be in the way they are conveying, and we have no idea where that’s coming from,” she says.

Ambady says positive body language like smiling, nodding and leaning forward while talking is far less common when white characters engage with black co-stars.

“The black characters receive significantly less positive non-verbal behaviour. They’re liked less non-verbally than white characters.”

In a separate test, Ambady’s team looked at how the onscreen biases might affect regular viewers.

This involved a new group of students chosen for being frequent watchers of the programs in question.

These students were given a set of standard psychological tests that measure subconscious biases.

Researchers found that this subconscious bias grew in direct proportion to the number of episodes each student had seen.

Thus, Ambady says, the subtle body-language bias displayed on television can create “insidious” repercussions in subconscious racial feelings among millions of viewers.

“Of course, when someone says something to you that’s biased, you can correct for it, you can say ‘that guy’s a jerk,'” she says.

“But when something is conveyed indirectly, where you’re not conscious of it, then it’s more difficult for you to control it.”

In a journal commentary on the study, Yale University psychologist John Dovidio said the paper’s use of white college students as viewers showed just how potent the non-verbal cues were in creating bias.

“Thus, non-verbal messages influence relatively sophisticated participants who are especially motivated to appear unbiased,” he says.