The Weird Connection Between Smiling and Racism

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When we’re born, we come pre-equipped with some pretty impressive cognitive hardware. One of the many things our brain is designed to do is form quick judgments about other people we meet for the first time.

Over the course of our evolutionary history there’s been a benefit to being able to quickly discern the motives of new human beings we come across. The problem is that the heuristics (cognitive shortcuts) we use to make these judgments aren’t always accurate. Our brain can get fooled, can treat friends as foes or vice versa.

Race is a prime example. A bunch of research has shown that the race of people we meet influences how we perceive and judge them. Over at BPS Research Digest (which recently got a nice redesign), Christian Jarrett reports on an interesting new study in Motivation and Emotion which adds a nice drop of complexity to the science of gut-level racial judgements.

Jarrett writes:

The research team, led by Nicole Senft at Georgetown University, asked 93 undergrad students to look at a series of photographs of faces and for each one to rate the person’s personality based purely on looking at the photograph. The researchers were especially interested in how the students rated the personalities of eight of the faces — two Caucasian men, two Caucasian women, two Japanese men and two Japanese women. The important study manipulation was that half the students looked at these people’s faces photographed showing a neutral expression, and the other half looked at the same faces photographed smiling.

As expected, among the students who rated neutral faces, some of the usual effects of gender and ethnic stereotypes came into play. For example, they rated Caucasian men lower on the trait of agreeableness than Caucasian women, and they rated Japanese women as less extravert[ed] than their Caucasian counterparts.

Smiling also had its expected effects in that the same faces were rated as belonging to a more extravert[ed] and agreeable person when seen smiling than when bearing a neutral expression.

Most important though was that the influence of the faces’ gender and ethnicity on the students’ personality ratings disappeared or were greatly reduced when those faces were smiling. “Smiling provides cues related to personality that are strong enough to negate the use of information based on gender or race in forming impressions of others,” the researchers said, adding that “smiling levels the playing field”.

Jarrett notes that the study had certain methodological weaknesses — and like any other single study we shouldn’t draw too much from it anyway. But this is still a useful reminder of all the complicated stuff going on under the radar when human beings form judgements — especially in situations where they have very little information.

What this study helps demonstrate is that while our brains can nudge us toward discriminatory judgment, there are also various contextual cues that can seep in and mitigate the effects of prejudice. Smiling appears to be one of them — but it’s just one of them. Let’s say the researchers ran a similar study where all the faces had that neutral look, but half the time the person was described as “A stranger you meet on a dark street,” and half the time they were described as “A member of a political organization you are a member of.” My guess is that there’d be a sizable racial gap in the dark-street condition, where people would be primed to be a bit fearful, but that the gap would be closed significantly in the political-organization one, where they would be primed to see the folks in the photos as members of their “team” in a meaningful way. Context matters a great deal.

Now, you’d have to actually run that study to actually know, of course, but the point is that we shouldn’t necessarily feel helpless about our quick, sloppy brains — they can lead us toward being discriminatory, of course, but there are ways to overcome that tendency.