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Ambiguous events, interpreted in stereotype-consistent ways

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology | December 1, 2010

The game of basketball is beautiful. When I lived in New York, cramped in an crowded apartment, a crowded block, a crowded city, running unrestricted on an open court was pure and simple freedom.

But the way race relations sometimes play out around the hardwood make my blood boil.

In this blog, I’ve written more than a few times about Lebron James, and how perceptions of him are more negative than warranted because he is a black man. Now, against the backdrop of lofty pre-season expectations, James’ team has actually struggled to win. Following a recent frustrating loss, this bump between James and the Heat’s coach has received wide media attention.

A quick perusal of the blogosphere suggests that reactions to the bump have not been kind, with many, many people agreeing that it was definitely intentional. Aggressive. Brutish. You see where I’m going: is it a coincidence that the judgment of intentional aggression goes against a black male?

A classic study by Birt Duncan (at UC Berkeley!) in 1976 is eerily illustrative of this point. Duncan showed study participants a videotape of two people discussing whether an engineer should change jobs or not. In the video, the interactants (A and B) go through the following script:

A: Aw come on! You’re saying that he should take the job when it’s likely that the new business will not survive. At least he can count on his company lasting. He may never be rich but at least he will be able to support his family and he can count on retiring with some money.

B: You must be crazy!…. A better pension plan than his present firm.

A: That’s not true! All companies have something like the cost of living increase built into their pay scales.

B: Well, we don’t know. You’re just guessing at that. It’s not in this story. The real point is whether he is willing to stay in some stagnant position or take a little risk to get ahead.

A: But you’re forgetting that the company will probably fold.

B: You’re just too damn conservative. With an attitude like that you’ll never get ahead.

A: What do you mean by that?

The interaction escalates, until A finally gets up and ambiguously bumps B. At that point the video is stopped, and the participants are asked to rate the interaction and the bump in particular. Unbeknownst to the participants, half of the participants saw a black person doing the bumping and half saw a white person.

When a black person was the one who initiated the bump, participants were more likely to describe the bump as a “violent shove,” and they tended to make more stable attributions for the behavior — that is, attribute the shove to the personality or disposition of the protagonist. When the protagonist was white, however, people described the same bump as “dramatizing,” or “horsing around,” and made more situational attributions for the behavior — that is, their explanations focused more on the provocative nature of the situation rather than the aggressive nature of the person.

The parallels to Lebron James are, as I said, eerie. There is a frustrating situation, an ambiguous bump, and a lot of people observing the behavior and interpreting it quickly. The evidence of bias in the case of James is subtle, but if you look at the types of attributions being made, it’s hard not to notice that most of the attributions (look in particular at fan reactions here) are not situational, but rather, personal. Brian Hickey suggests Lebron James is a “passive-aggressive Latrell Sprewell,” and Bethlehem Shoals notes that “criticism of [James] always keys in on personality and persona.” Let’s think about this: if the star player had been white, and mired in a frustrating season, would people be more likely to write about “the frustrating season” rather than “the aggressive player”?

Let’s not be so quick to judge others negatively in the face of reasonable doubt — particularly when the doubt stems from our own susceptibility to unconscious bias.

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