New research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology has found a racial bias in the social perception of risk-taking. The study indicates that stereotypes about Black people in the United States are associated with reckless risk-taking, while stereotypes about White people are associated with responsible risk-taking. The findings also provide evidence that these biased perceptions can result in harmful financial consequences for Black individuals.
“Generally speaking, I have always been fascinated with understanding what people think about each other and why. Such thinking is an important element for making sense of how people evaluate and treat one another,” said James Wages, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Central Arkansas and the corresponding author of the new study.
“I became interested in how risk-taking intersects with stereotypes when I learned about the racial disparities in HIV, in which the rates of infection are disproportionately high among Black men relative to other groups. As I came to discover, the roots of the disparity are likely due to unequal access to quality healthcare and restrictive sexual networks (wherein the virus more easily spreads) rather than differences in risky sexual behavior.”
“But I wondered whether people believed that such racial disparities were due to beliefs about willingness to take risks recklessly rather than other relevant contextual factors,” Wages said. “This is what led me to study whether racial stereotypes contained conceptions of risk-taking and whether such conceptions differed between stereotypes of Black and White people in the U.S.”
In an initial study, 147 participants viewed 60 headshots of men and rated their perceived masculinity and perceived risk-taking. The researchers found that Black men tended to be rated as more likely to take risks and more masculine than White men. Heightened perceptions of masculinity were associated with heightened perceptions of risk-taking.
In their next four studies, Wages and his colleague examined two different types of risk-takers: responsible risk-takers (who take chances in thoughtful and considered ways) and reckless risk-takers (who take chances in thoughtless and ill-considered ways).
The researchers presented 304 participants with a list of 99 personality traits and asked them to indicate which traits were associated with either responsible risk-takers or reckless risk-takers. The list was taken from a stereotype checklist that has been used in previous research. Traits associated with reckless risk-takers were rated as more stereotypically Black (e.g. quick-tempered and boastful), while traits associated with responsible risk-takers were rated as more stereotypically White (e.g. intelligent and ambitious).
For their next study, which included 703 participants, Wages and his team used a technique called reverse correlation to examine whether people envisioned reckless and responsible risk-takers in racially differentiated ways. In the reverse correlation task, the participants viewed 300 pairs of faces with superimposed patterns of random noise. In each trial, they were asked to select one face that better resembled either reckless and responsible risk-takers. The researchers found that participants envisioned reckless risk-takers as having more Black facial features than responsible risk-takers.
Using the racialized images of reckless and responsible risk-takers generated from Study 3, the researchers recruited 250 participants for a financial investment task in which they could earn a small amount of money. They found that participants were less trusting of an investor who resembled the visual prototype of a reckless risk-taker. “These findings indicate that people are willing to discriminate against others who visually fit racially stereotypic notions of recklessness (in favor of those who fit stereotypic notions of responsibility) when their money is at stake,” the researchers said.
For their final study, which included 199 participants, the researchers found that the relationship between reckless risk-taking and Blackness existed even for neutral and positive racial stereotypes that were unrelated to risk-taking. A reckless risk-taker was more likely to be perceived as someone who was streetwise, acted cool, was a good dancer, and liked hip hop. A responsible risk-taker, in contrast, was more likely to be perceived as someone who was wealthy, intelligent, educated, and successful.
“Risk is a key ingredient of the decisions we make everyday,” Wages told PsyPost. “Sometimes the risks we take can be thought of as responsible and other times as reckless. We examined whether such conceptions of risk-taking — as either responsible or reckless — were associated with racial stereotypes. Across five experiments, we found consistent evidence that these risk concepts are imbued with racial stereotypes, such that reckless risks were viewed as a stereotypical attribute of Black people (and responsible risks an attribute of White people).”
“Our findings may have implications for situations in which the perception of risk-taking is common and consequential, such as when interacting with healthcare providers, financial lenders, and police officers. For example, when deciding whether to prescribe a risky medical treatment, lend a mortgage at a reasonable rate, or sentence a convict harshly, deciders should examine whether their judgments could potentially be biased by racial stereotypes of risk-taking.”
The participants in the study were predominately White, and the researchers used methodologies that obscured that fact that the study was examining racial biases.
“Studying socially sensitive topics, like racial biases and stereotypes, can be difficult,” Wages explained. “Because people tend to think of negative stereotypes as repugnant, participants are often reluctant to share their honest opinions and perceptions on such matters. Beyond the desire to appear unbiased, many folks don’t necessarily have very accurate insight to their psychological faults. Despite such troubles, our experiments leverage creative and innovative techniques to measure stereotyping in ways that relatively prevent defensive responding from clouding the results.”
“In addition to this methodological undertaking, we shed some light on a potentially pernicious stereotypical association,” Wages added. “Given that the perception of risk surrounds our daily decisions, understanding how risk perceptions connect to social stereotypes seems important, consequential, and yet mostly unexplored. My hope is that this work lays the foundation for a program of research that studies the mechanisms, the boundaries, and the origins of such risky social stereotypes as well as how to disrupt them.”
The study, “Reckless Gambles and Responsible Ventures: Racialized Prototypes of Risk-taking“, was authored by James E. Wages III, Sylvia P. Perry, Allison L. Skinner-Dorkenoo, and Galen V. Bodenhausen.