New research provides evidence that racial stereotypes tend to be strengthened under conditions of scarcity. The findings, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, indicate that economic scarcity can influence mental representations of Black people.
Previous research has indicated that when jobs are few and competition is high, people are more likely to view others in terms of race, seeing members of their own group as more deserving of scarce resources. This could lead to increased tension and conflict between different racial groups. But little is known about the psychological mechanisms driving this effect.
“I became very interested in this topic because it offers a unique perspective on a pervasive social issue — the amplification of racial disparities under times of economic recession,” said study author Michael M. Berkebile-Weinberg, a PhD student in social psychology at New York University.
“This phenomenon is multi-faceted, and this work in particular tries to understand how we as individuals are both impacted by and help propagate systemic forces. That interplay between the individual and the systems that operate in society is a fundamental aspect of intergroup social cognition, and a driving theme in our research going forward.”
In a study of 165 mostly White participants, the researchers used a money allocation game to manipulate perceived scarcity. The participants were informed that they would be given a sum of money, and would then choose how much to allocate to their partner. They were told the endowment size would be determined randomly, but in reality the sum of money was fixed.
In the scarcity condition, the participants were told they had only been given $10 out of a possible $100. In the control condition, they were told they had been given $10 out of a possible $10.
When participants were led to believe that resources were scarce, they were more likely to report having knowledge of stereotypes of Black Americans as low in socioeconomic status and as threatening (e.g. uneducated and aggressive) compared to those in the control group. But scarcity had no impact on stereotypes of White American.
In two additional studies, which included nearly 500 non-Black participants, the researchers used what is known as a reverse correlation procedure to examine visualizations of a Black male face.
In this task, the participants were presented with 200 pairs of faces that were overlaid with different patterns of visual noise, which subtly distorted the image to produce unique facial features. They were then asked which face, out of each pair, depicted a Black person. The images selected as “Black” on each trial were averaged to create a composite image that represented the mental representation of a Black person.
Berkebile and his colleagues found that visualizations of Black faces produced under perceived scarcity appeared more threatening and lower in socioeconomic status compared with a control condition, suggesting that “scarcity leads perceivers to form more stereotypical mental representations of Black people.” Visualizations of Black faces produced under perceived scarcity were also evaluated less positively by a group of independent raters.
“I think the fundamental take-away from this work is that threats in our environment (like signals of economic recession) can fundamentally impact the stereotypes that we hold,” Berkebile told PsyPost. “Further, this extends past just what we think of each other, to affect how we actually see each other, making this process really difficult to control.”
The researchers third study also included an implicit association test, which is often used to measure unconscious racial bias. The test works by measuring the respondent’s reaction time to certain words or images.
Participants with stronger implicit racial bias tended to visualize Black individuals’ faces in a more stereotypical manner, and this was not significantly impacted by perceived scarcity. But among participants with relatively weak implicit racial bias, perceived scarcity appeared to result in a substantial increase in stereotypical visualizations.
“We found an interesting and very surprising effect in the last study,” Berkebile explained. “The general effect that we reported before — that economic scarcity increased stereotyping — was actually strongest for those with less implicit bias compared to those with more implicit bias. We did not have a strong prediction for this analysis, but were surprised to see that those with less bias were impacted by scarcity the most. This analysis was exploratory, so we should replicate this finding before giving it much weight.”
The study includes some limitations and points to areas for additional research. “All of the studies looked at these processes in a strict Black/White American perspective,” Berkebile said. “Future work should extend beyond these groups and test how such patterns play out for different races and other social categories altogether (like gender, for example). Also, we are yet to test the driving force behind these effects. Future work will dive into the mechanisms here to answer why these patterns emerge.”
The study, “Economic scarcity increases racial stereotyping in beliefs and face representation“, was authored by Michael M. Berkebile-Weinberg, Amy R. Krosch, and David M. Amodio.