Mimicry — an antidote to racial prejudice?

Could something as simple as imitating the bodily motions of other people reduce prejudice against those same people? A new paper by Michael Inzlicht, Jennifer N. Gutsell and Lisa Legault, published online in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, suggests it just might.

Imitation is something humans take to naturally. Babies, from a very early age, delight their parents by copying their movements, gestures and facial expressions, an ability that helps kids pick up the practical and social skills they need to get on in the world. Indeed, imitation in various guises underpins the human capacity for transmitting cultural knowledge and practices, and it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that this has been the key to the global dominance humans have achieved since we began colonising the planet some 60,000 years ago.

And we don’t stop imitating when we grow up. Adults, when they get together, often unconsciously mimic each other’s bodily movements, posture, facial expressions, and speech patterns. This all helps create a feeling in of being in synch, of ‘clicking’ — imitation as social lubricant.

Yet imitation is both a cause and consequence of getting along. Studies have shown that when people don’t have much rapport with someone they’re interacting with, they’re less likely to imitate them. But if they are instructed to mimic someone with whom they initially have little rapport, they’re likely to subsequently report much greater feelings of connectedness. Mimicry also boosts trust, and the likelihood of helping someone in need. In short, imitation creates a sort of mental resonance with other people, enabling us to ‘get into their shoes’ and sowing the seeds of empathy.

Imitation is also selective in other ways. We’re more likely to synch up with people we feel close to or affiliated with in some way — by virtue of belonging to the same perceived in-group, for example (this could be anything from shared support for a sports team to a common religious or ethnic identity). On the flip side, studies suggest that prejudice against certain outgroups inhibits imitation of members of those groups. So a white person harbouring a prejudice against blacks will be less likely to coordinate their physical and verbal behaviour with a black person, and will typically experience reduced feelings of trust, liking and empathy towards that person. Indeed such a lack of empathic connection is part of what defines a prejudice.

Now here’s a question: if getting people to imitate those with whom they lack a rapport can increase interpersonal connectivity, might imitation have similarly positive effects on racial prejudice? This is just what Inzlicht, Gutsell and Legault set out to answer.

So how do you find a group with the relevant outgroup racial prejudice? Well, it turns out not to be very difficult. The sad fact is that many people harbour pro-white attitudes relative to blacks. And this phenomenon is not restricted to non-black folk, as 50 percent of blacks share the same pro-white, anti-black prejudice. How do we know this? In large part thanks to a psychological probe called the Implicit Association Test (IAT).

The IAT is based on a simple principle: our minds forge unconscious or implicit links between concepts, and the closer two concepts are tied together, the more quickly we’ll be able to recall one when reminded of the other. This is the idea of implicit associations. (Malcolm Gladwell has a nice discussion of implicit associations in Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.)

How can we detect implicit associations, if they exist below the radar of consciousness? Here’s one method. Imagine you had to classify a list of people’s names — David, Sarah, John, Amy, Bob, Holly and so on — as either male or female. It’s pretty easy, and you’d be able to assign them to the relevant category quickly. Now imagine you’re presented with a similar list of names, but one with some added words in there, such as ‘entrepreneur’, ‘laundry’, ‘corporation’, and ‘cousins’. Now the task is to classify each name or word as being related to either ‘Male OR Career’, or ‘Female OR Family’. This makes the task a little trickier, but it’s likely that you’d still put ‘David’, ‘John’, ‘Bob’, ‘entrepreneur’ and ‘corporation’ in the ‘Male OR Career’ category fairly quickly (ditto for putting the female names, as well as ‘laundry’ and ‘cousins’, in the ‘Female OR Family’ column). But what happens if the categories are mixed up, so instead of ‘Male OR Career’ and ‘Female OR Family’ you have ‘Male OR Family’ and ‘Female OR Career’? Now people generally find the task to be more difficult still, and respondents are slower to categorise each item. This reveals the implicit association that many, or even most, people hold between maleness and careers, and females and families. (Jump to the bottom of this post to see what this task would look like in practice.)

Pretty much the same procedure can be applied to looking at implicit racial associations. You come up with a list of words, some of which denote something clearly good – love, kindness, glorious, wonderful — and others obviously bad (evil, hurt, etc). Next you mix into this list of words some photos of black and white faces. Then you ask people to categorise each item as either ‘African American OR Bad’ or ‘European American OR Good’. You then compare response times and accuracy on this test with people taking an almost identical one but this time categorising each item as ‘African American OR Good’ or ‘European American OR Bad.’ If people take longer on the second task, that reveals an implicit association between thoughts of African Americans and badness, and European Americans and goodness.

Gladwell has taken the test himself a number of times. Here’s what he says about his results in the context of wider findings:

It turns out that more than 80 percent of all those who have ever taken the test end up having pro-white associations, meaning that it takes them longer to complete answers when they are required to put good words in the ‘Black’ category than when they are required to link bad things with black people. I didn’t do quite so badly. On the Race IAT, I was rated as having a “moderate automatic preference for whites.” But then again, I’m half black. (My mother is Jamaican.)

So what does this mean? Does this mean I’m a racist, a self-hating black person? Not exactly … [O]f the fifty thousand African Americans who have taken the Race IAT so far, about half of them, like me, have stronger associations with whites than blacks. How could we not? We live in North America, where we are surrounded every day by cultural messages linking white with good. “You don’t choose to make positive associations with the dominant group,” says Mahzarin Banaji, who teaches psychology at Harvard and is one of the leaders in IAT research. “But you are required to. All around you, that group is being paired with good things. You open the newspaper and you turn on the television, and you can’t escape it”. (Blink, p84-85.)

So while the IAT taps into our unconscious, implicit attitudes, these may be at odds with our consciously chosen and explicitly held beliefs and values. Gladwell is no racist, yet he can still have an implicit preference for whites compared with blacks — as most of the population do. And while a disturbing number of people hold out-and-out racist views, the fact that they show an implicit bias towards whites is not diagnostic of this fact.

So with this background in mind, Inzlicht, Gutsell and Legault enlisted 63 non-black undergraduates, who were assigned to one of three conditions. One-third of the students were assigned to the outgroup mimicry condition. They watched a video that sequentially showed seven black male actors, of college age, sat down at a table and reaching for a class of water, and were instructed to mimic their actions. Another third went into the outgroup observation condition: they merely watched the videos. Finally, to control for the effect of mimicry, the remaining third watched and mimicked comparable white actors sit and take a glass of water (the in-group mimicry condition).

After this boring trip to the movies, our non-black cohort was subject to two tests: one designed to tap into their implicit attitudes towards black people, the other crafted to measure explicit racist attitudes. The test of implicit attitudes the trio used is based on something with an rather opaque called the affect misattribution paradigm. Affect, in this case, essentially means our emotional reaction to things — basically whether we like them or not. This affective rating, however, can be manipulated in various ways, leading to misattributions of affect. What, exactly, does this mean? Here’s a concrete case. Imagine being flashed an image of an unfamiliar character from a foreign language, perhaps Chinese for most Western readers (or, say, a character from an Arabic language for your average Chinese reader). You’re then asked to rate its appeartance as pleasant or unpleasant. Run this past many people, and you’ll get an average rating of the character’s position on the pleasantness scale.

If you re-run this simple experiment, but first show respondents a photo of a smiling, happy baby (telling subjects in advance to ignore the photo and only think about the following Chinese character), the average pleasantness rating of the same characters goes up. In other words, the positive affect is carried over from the cute baby, and then applied — or misapplied — to the Chinese character.

You can no doubt see where this is going. Inzlicht, Gutsell and Legault did essentially the same thing, but instead of showing a baby’s face they showed black or white faces. (And rather than using Chinese characters, they used the Glagolitic alphabet, the oldest known Slavic alphabet – not something your average undergraduate has much experience of.) If people are in the grip of an implicit bias towards white people and against black people, then the Glagolitic letters should be rated as more pleasant after seeing white faces, and less so after seeing black faces.

This is exactly what the researchers found for both the in-group mimicry and outgroup observation conditions, revealing a pre-exisiting implicit preference for whites compared with blacks — that is, an implicit anti-black prejudice — among the study subjects. (But remember, this doesn’t make them racist scum.) But what of those in the outgroup mimicry condition? Well, they showed a similar preference for the letters after seeing either white or black faces, suggesting that mimicry did indeed lessen their implicit prejudice — a remarkable (though perhaps short-lived) achievement for so simple an exercise.

Inzlicht and colleagues also looked at explicit racist attitudes with the Symbolic Racism Scale 2000. This asks people to rate their agreement with statements like “It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites”. The results of this test phase were less clear. While the outgroup mimicry group scored lower on this measure of racism than those in the in-group mimicry condition, those who merely observed the black actors scored the same as the mimicking group. So it’s not really clearly clear what this tells us.

At least in terms of the implicit attitudes test, these are intriguing findings. The sample size was fairly small, and so they should be treated as exploratory, not definitive — and even more so given the murky results of the explicit racism measure. Nonetheless, they are perfectly consistent with other work demonstrating the power of racial primes on the one hand, and studies demonstrating the afflictive, bonding, empathy-enhancing power of simple imitation on the other.

These preliminary results also raise a raft of further questions. How long would a one-shot treatment of this kind last? Who knows. And would it translate to real-world behaviour? Perhaps. Clearly, a lot more work is needed. But if the effect is real, it might be possible to build it up over time, through repeated and more extended imitative interactions. Could this be applied in real-world settings of outright inter-group animosity, and not just along racial lines? I can’t easily imagine a setting in which techniques like this could be applied, but then I’m not that clued up the various forums and institutions that attempt to mediate various conflicts and inter-group antagonisms. Maybe other people have some ideas.

Example IATs


About Dan Jones

Dan Jones is a freelance science writer
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4 Responses to Mimicry — an antidote to racial prejudice?

  1. Aaron Millar says:

    Thanks for the blog – for me the whole area of automatic or unconscious processing (the kind that is tested with the IAT) is the most interesting area of psychology. There is a lot of research out there about how although in the western world we may feel that racism is all but obliterated in fact many of us hold unconscious negative associations about people of different races – whether that arises from the media, social environments etc – even though those automatic associations may contradict our consciously held beliefs. It’s an interesting idea that mimicry may help to increase empathy and counter some of these automatic associations. Indeed it’s been argued that mimicry itself evolved in part to help foster empathy so perhaps it’s not all that surprising … perhaps one area this technique might be applied is in ‘restorative justice’ – this is a relatively new counselling approach that seeks to bring young offenders face to face with their victims to try and help them empathise with them and therefore understand the gravity of their crime. I have a friend who works in that field – I’ll mention it to him. Anyway thanks again for the blog – I’ll definitely keep my eye out for future stuff.

    • Dan Jones says:

      That’s interesting that this work actually connects up with current counselling practice – that#s certainly somethign worth exploring further. Thanks for the pointer!

  2. transience22 says:

    While I’m not at all surprised by the findings of the research, I wonder if merely having a bias = racism. Most of the critical race theorists I’ve read define racism as power+prejudice. Merely having a bias toward “people who look like me” or “people who look like those I spend a lot of my time with” isn’t racist (and they are definitely not racist scum, as you pointed out). All these studies seem to suggest is something we already knew: with a certain degree of familiarity, the in-group becomes more inclusive. I do not, however, see this research as tremendously helpful in eliminating racism as defined above. If anything, all it offers is, perhaps, a method that might be used in facilitating interracial interactions so that greater understanding can be achieved between individual participants. Hmmm. Thanks for the post!!!

    • Dan Jones says:

      I agree: a bias is not the equivalent to racism, which is much more ideological. And I think you’re right that this research alone is unlikely to provide a tool to eliminate racism – but perhaps it’s a small start to gtting our heads around some of the factors that come into play in intergroup relations. One can but hope!

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