Although social science has well established the influence of racial stereotypes across seemingly every area of life, researchers are still finding new ways that they impact us. Northwestern University recently announced new research demonstrating that racial stereotypes impact whether a risk-taker is perceived as reckless or responsible.
“People consistently showed this tendency to perceive Black people as more risk-taking and more reckless,” said Dr. Sylvia Perry, an associate professor of psychology at Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and the project’s senior researcher. “We were surprised about how large the effects were.”
Perry and Dr. James Wages, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Central Arkansas and the paper’s lead author, began by showing study participants headshots of 30 Black and 30 white men. The participants were asked to rate how much of a risk-taker they thought that each person was. As Perry and Wages predicted, subjects rated the Black men as significantly more likely to take risks.
With a link between risk and race established, the researchers then examined the connection between race and different kinds of risk-taking. They had participants suggest personality traits of either responsible risk-takers (“intelligent,” “ambitious”) or reckless risk-takers, (“impulsive,” “aggressive”) and then analyzed how stereotypically white or Black the traits had been found to be in prior research. Participants suggested stereotypically whiter traits for the responsible risk-takers and stereotypically Blacker traits for the reckless ones.
But subjects didn’t only believe that reckless and responsible risk-takers had stereotypically Black and white traits. They also visualized reckless and responsible risk-takers in racialized ways. Perry and Wages created aggregate images of the faces of responsible and reckless risk-takers by asking participants to compare images of racially ambiguous faces and choose which one seemed more responsible or reckless. When the researchers showed these aggregate images to other subjects, they found that the participants were more likely to assign stereotypically Black traits to the reckless risk-taker image, as well as to rate that image as more Afrocentric in appearance.
The researchers also showed that these associations could have social consequences. In one experiment, subjects were given 25 cents and told that they could divide the money however they wanted between two investors. They were told that the potential outcomes ranged between tripling their money and losing it all. No other information was given about the investors, but the subjects were given images of them: the aggregate reckless risk-taker and responsible risk-taker from the previous study. Participants allocated 69% more money to the investor represented by the responsible risk-taker image, which had been rated as less Afrocentric looking.
Additionally, Perry and Wages showed that the image of reckless risk-taking was specifically being evoked by stereotypes of Blackness and not simply arising because both reckless risk-taking and Blackness are stereotypically associated with certain negative traits. The researchers mocked up Twitter profiles suggestive of reckless risk-takers (“I choose to live RECKLESSLY and take chances to get what I want, whatever the consequences”) and responsible risk-takers (“LIFE IS RISK. I manage it RESPONSIBLY”). The races of the mock users were unclear.
Subjects were asked how likely they thought either user was to post stereotypically Black Tweets (“I was shooting hoops all weekend with my boys”) or stereotypically white ones (“What a sweet day for golfing on the greens”). Participants rated the reckless user as significantly more likely to post stereotypically Black Tweets and the responsible user as significantly more likely to post stereotypically white Tweets.
It’s not fully clear why race and perceptions of risk seem to be linked. But Wages has an idea.
“I wouldn't say that we have any evidence that this is a very natural or ingrained kind of bias that we can't help,” he said. “Rather, it probably has more to do with the types of things that we see in our environments. In childhood, we’re not given good explanations for why there are [racial] disparities. At an early age, we make assumptions [like] it must be something about these groups that differs.”
According to Perry, the link between race and riskiness is often reinforced by the media.
“One example is what just happened with the recent COVID variant,” she said. “When it was discovered in South Africa and things were shut down, the assumption was that this was about South Africans’ behaviors and that it came from that area. And later it was found that actually, no, the [South African] scientists just discovered it earlier than everyone else and actually it was in Europe before it was in South Africa.”
Perry and Wages’ findings have implications for any field that involves risk assessments. This includes ones that are obvious, such as medicine and law enforcement, but also ones that are less obvious, such as higher education.
“There’s evidence shown that students at historically Black colleges receive higher interest rates [on student loans],” said Perry. “Higher interest rates are often associated with an assumption that people are going to engage in more risks.”
Assumptions about risk-taking could also play a role in other aspects of student life.
“If teachers or people who are making gateway decisions about what kind of classes people should take [or] whether or not they receive certain scholarships, some of that might be dependent upon how risky the students [seem to be],” said Wages.
Wages hopes that additional research explores the connection between race and perceptions of risk-taking in different professional contexts and would like to test the connection with different populations of subjects. (Most of Perry and Wages’ participants were white and American).
Perry hopes that the next step will explore why this bias exists.
“Once we have a better understanding of the basic underlying reasons why people tend to make these assumptions, we can start to think about ways to undo these effects,” she said. “I think that’s a really important direction to go.”