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How subtle discrimination affects targets II: American as Apple Pie

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology | March 21, 2012

As I explore about in this blog post, prejudice and discrimination does not have to be blatant or extreme to affect people. Although tragedies such as the shooting of Trayvon Martin grab headlines, these incidents are a lot less common than the racial slurs or put-downs, masked as jokes or tongue-in-cheek bantering, that minorities often have to face. This seems particularly true in sports– a fan throws a banana peel at a black hockey player; an unwitting journalist runs the headline “chink in the armor” when the Jeremy Lin-led Knicks begin to lose. Just last week, at the NCAA basketball tournament, Kansas State’s Angel Rodriguez was taunted by members of the Southern Miss band with the chant “Where is Your Green Card?”.

These events have a way of staying in the mind of targets– and of affecting their behavior- long after the public outcries have died down.

Latino Americans are not the only group subjected to questions about whether they are American (just ask President Obama). A recent study by UC Berkeley graduate student Maya Guendelman and her colleagues in the journal Psychological Science (Guendelmann, Cheryan, and Monin, 2011) focused specifically on how questions of whether one is “really” an American affects, of all things, what people eat.

In their first study, the researchers approached Asian American students and White students on a college campus to fill out a survey about food preferences. For half of the participants, the researchers first asked the seemingly innocuous question, “Do you speak English?” The Asian Americans who had been asked this question were statistically more likely to report favorite foods that are associated with America, such as burgers and french fries, compared to either Asian Americans who had not been asked this question or to White Americans (for this latter group, asking about their English had no effect on their food preferences).

In a second study, Guendelman and colleagues specifically invited Asian American participants to the lab to select and then eat foods from a web-based menu. The menu fully disclosed the nutritional information of the food choices. Half of the participants, chosen at random, were stopped by the experimenter at the door and told, “Actually, you have to be an American to be in this study.”

All of the participants clarified that they were indeed American– but that was not the point. The point was to see how the identity threat invoked by the experimenter’s words would affect their food choices. As with Study 1, following this very brief interchange, the participants who were under identity threat were more likely to choose foods from the American menu– grilled cheese, hamburgers, fries, Philly cheese steak, chicken fritters– than participants whose American identity had not been threatened. This small manipulation, in fact, caused the study participants to choose (and later eat) food with an average extra 182 calories and 12 grams of fat.

Talk about sacrificing your body for the sake of fitting in.

By the way, the basketball player, Angel Rodriguez, calmly made his free throws and helped his team advance in the tournament. I do wonder, though, whether the taunts somehow affected his later behavior in unintended ways. These mysteries are a large part of what this blog is about.

You can follow this blog through twitter and facebook. Copyright 2012 by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton; all rights reserved.

Comments to “How subtle discrimination affects targets II: American as Apple Pie

  1. P.S. Just ran across this Scientific American article, FYI
    in case there is any group left with people who really care to do anything about correcting the failures of human nature before the window is closed and locked:

    “Effective World Government Will Be Needed to Stave Off Climate Catastrophe” Scientific American, By Gary Stix | March 17, 2012

    QUESTION: Why hasn’t UC National Labs solved this problem by now, no institution in the world had a better opportunity?

    ANSWER: Ike is still right:
    “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded.”

    I’m sure that Socrates would still feel the same way today because human nature really hasn’t improved, it’s just that science has made it possible for us to self destruct faster than ever before.

    The only good news at this point is the miracle that we never blew ourselves up during the cold war when American and/or Russian leaders could have pushed the button.

  2. (Cont’d) Relative to racism, the end of the 20th century seems to be as tolerant as we ever got because destructive politics, religion and economics prove that we are devolving again today back to the level we were when we came out of the trees.

    From personal experience I can testify that California was as good as we ever got, but we have no leaders nationally and internationally today who can motivate us to make the right things happen before out of control population growth and declining/degrading resources send us back into whatever trees may remain.

    Education should have produced the greatest government, society and economy in history by making opportunities for everyone possible, and religion should have made the Golden Rule work, but greed, immorality and our amygdala are destroying quality of life on earth for our newest generations as Washington and international relations prove daily. So our education system is in the crash and burn mode today, along with our social, political, economic and religious institutions, especially since we failed to plan for and dedicate ourselves to the long term survival of the human race.

    As the Durants concluded, politicians and intellectuals failed to meet the challenges of change, and we have failed to learn from the lessons of history far too many times.

  3. A paramount fact of life today is that there is no world leader, like FDR and Churchill, to unite the human race to practice the Golden Rule for the sake of our survival, especially with out of control population and declining resources that are increasingly threatening quality of life for our newest generations.

    One other fact that makes the problem almost impossible to fix is our failure to evolve biologically since the first civilization was created, specifically we need a prefrontal cortex to control destructive emotions produced by our amygdala because our best universities have not produced that capability.

    The current presidential campaign and congressional political rhetoric, along with the total failure of the United Nations are worst case scenarios that prove these points.

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