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UCLA Study Exposes Cognitive Stereotypes About ‘Black’-Sounding Names

UCLA Study Exposes Cognitive Stereotypes About ‘Black’-Sounding Names


A UCLA study investigating how racial bias affects a person’s perception of others has discovered that people imagined men with stereotypically black names as bigger and more violent than those with traditionally white names.

The study, newly published in Evolution and Human Behavior, surveyed over 1,500 people in order to better understand how the brain’s interpretation of social status evolved from a brain process that was used by our ancestors to identify threats. A group of primarily white participants who self-identified as liberal, aged between 18 and the mid-70s, were asked to read one of two brief stories describing a fictional man. The stories were identical except that in one group of stories, the man was named Connor, Wyatt, or Garrett, and in the other group the man was named Jamal, DeShawn, or Darnell. After reading the story, the participants were asked to relate their impression of the character’s height, build, social status, and aggressiveness.

“I’ve never been so disgusted by my own data,” lead author Colin Holbrook said. “The amount that our study participants assumed based only on a name was remarkable. A character with a black-sounding name was assumed to be physically larger, more prone to aggression, and lower in status than a character with a white-sounding name.” Additionally, participants imagined that the characters with the “black” names as having less financial success, social influence, and respect than the characters with “white” names.

“In essence, the brain’s representational system has a toggle switch, such that size can be used to represent either threat or status,” UCLA anthropology professor Daniel Fessler said. “However, apparently because stereotypes of black men as dangerous are deeply entrenched, it is very difficult for our participants to flip this switch when thinking about black men.”

“I think our study participants, who were overall on the liberal end of the spectrum, would be dismayed to know this about themselves,” Holbrook said. “This study shows that, even among people who understand that racism is still very real, it’s important for them to acknowledge the possibility that they have not only prejudicial but really inaccurate stereotypes in their heads.”