Students view the same behaviors they’ve engaged in as racist when someone else does them

College undergraduates tend to view other students as more racist than themselves, even when they have engaged in the exact same behaviors, according to new research published in The Journal of Social Psychology.

Previous psychological research has demonstrated that people consistently evaluate themselves as superior to the average person. The researchers were interested whether this better-than-average effect could help explain why people fail to recognize their own racism.

More than 500 college students participated in the study.

At the beginning of the semester, the participants filled out an online questionnaire, which listed 46 behaviors and asked the students to indicate if they had ever engaged in each behavior. The list included 30 racist behaviors, such as “Have you ever used the N-word to refer to Blacks?”

Several months later, the participants were told they’d be reviewing the responses of a randomly selected student. However, they all were actually reviewing their own behaviors under the guise that these were someone else’s.

The participants then responded to the questions: “Compared to the average fellow college student, how racist is this person?” and “Compared to the average fellow college student, how racist are you?”

The researchers found that the participants consistently rated the other person as more racist than themselves. This was true even after the participants had been encouraged to disregard political correctness and were reminded their responses were completely confidential.

“Taken together, this work suggests that people are less likely to base their racist trait ratings on behavioral evidence when evaluating themselves compared to when they are evaluating another. By doing so, people are able to maintain the self-perception that they are not racist even in the face of contradictory behavioral evidence,” the researchers explained.

The study — like all research — includes some limitations. Sixteen participants expressed suspicion that the responses from the other student were their own, but they were removed from the study.

It is still unclear why people think they’re less racist than the average person. But past research on the better-than-average effect provides some clues.

That research has indicated that “people are more likely to base their own trait estimates on their peak behavioral performances but base their estimates of others’ traits on their average performances,” the researchers explained.

“Participants may be more likely to think of a few instances when they behaved in an egalitarian manner and weight these instances more heavily when judging their own racism than when judging another’s.”

The study, “Examining the asymmetry in judgments of racism in self and others“, was authored by Angela C. Bell, Melissa Burkley, and Jarrod Bock.