In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Jennifer Crosby of Williams College examines how we react to perceived prejudice in a social setting.
Jennifer Crosby is an assistant professor of psychology at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Her Groups Process and Social Interactions Lab examines individual and situational factors affecting attention, decision-making, and behavior in intergroup interactions. She earned her Ph.D. at Stanford University.
Dr. Jennifer Crosby – Prejudice and Conversational Dynamics
Imagine being the only member of a certain social group when someone makes a questionable remark about your group. All eyes turn to you. Why does this happen? Do people just automatically look to anyone whose group is mentioned? Or do they actually want to see your response to the remark? We examined this question using a small camera that can track people's eye movements. In our experiment, people watched a discussion in which someone criticized affirmative action, and we measured where their eyes looked. When the anti-affirmative-action comment was made, people looked more at the one Black person in the conversation than at the White people in the conversation. But, this only happened when viewers believed the Black person could hear the comment. When viewers were told that the Black person could not hear the comment because his headphones were turned off, they did not look at him. This tells us that people look at members of specific groups in order to see their reactions.
The next thing we wondered was: How does it feel to be the focus of this attention? We’ve found that being the only member of your group in a conversation relevant to your group membership (such as a being the only Black person in a conversation about affirmative action) produces negative feelings like self-consciousness and discomfort. This situation is also likely to give you a sense that other people in the conversation are looking at you. Finally, people in this situation often feel they have to represent their entire group.
We hope these studies can help us better understand the experiences of both majority and minority individuals in intergroup interaction. The tendency to look to a member of a relevant group may be a natural response to a questionable comment, but these glances can leave members of underrepresented groups feeling the burden of representing their entire social group in these situations.