February 9, 1998
Volume 50, No. 20
Psychologist examines students' 'expression' of prejudice
Facial muscle activity may serve as a tell-tale sign of latent personal prejudice, according to a study published in the November 1997 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Emory visiting psychology professor Eric Vanman conducted a study at the University of Southern California that analyzed how facial movements indicate racial bias white college students.
"I think a lot of people in the '90s think discussions about racial prejudice are a dead issue," said Vanman. "They think it's time to move on to other things, but I think this study shows how invalid these self-reports are. The students represent the extreme end of the continuum, and we still found racial bias. If we went out to mainstream America, the bias would be much stronger."
Vanman performed this study to show that people who won't openly admit their own prejudices may still harbor negative feelings towards people of another race. Claiming this prejudice often manifests itself in a work environment or school setting, Vanman conducted his study using male and female university students. Vanman worked with a total of 89 participants, all of them students enrolled in psychology courses.
Conducting three experiments, he placed pairs of electrodes over the brow and lower-lip area of each participant to examine the role these facial muscles play in forming expressions such as a smile or a frown. Vanman said he used these physiological measures to assess how whites truly felt about blacks even though most participants wouldn't admit anti-black prejudice.
"We were tapping into people's feelings and asking them in the first two experiments to imagine how they might feel in a particular situation," said Vanman. He used photographic scenarios featuring blacks and whites together and asked participants to imagine themselves working and interacting with blacks.
While most participants verbally expressed no racial prejudice against blacks in either experiment, Vanman's study showed many people harboring "hidden" negative facial expressions. Even white participants who said they preferred working with blacks demonstrated facial activity suggesting anti-black sentiment, Vanman explained.
In a third experiment, participants simply looked at pictures of whites and blacks without imagining themselves interacting and working together. Vanman said this experiment delivered similar results. Participants outwardly expressed little or no bias, but analysis of cheek and brow activity revealed negative feelings towards blacks. In fact, EMG analysis showed whites presenting greater facial bias against blacks in this experiment, especially those participants with higher scores on the Modern Racism Scale, a political measure of personal prejudice.
While the third experiment helped justify the study's overall results, there remain some unresolved issues among scholars. Some social psychologists argue that using scenarios in experiments may tend to "tell" subjects how to react or lead participants to confirm the hypothesis. Many contend this approach doesn't leave room for spontaneous action or minor events that could affect behavior in face-to-face situations.
Vanman also conducted research at USC that addressed these concerns and others. He asked white, Asian, Hispanic and black participants to examine pictures while he measured their facial activity. White, Asian and Hispanic participants preferred pictures depicting whites. Vanman observed black participants smiling more when they saw pictures of blacks, and all four groups said they liked the pictures showing blacks, even "preferred" them. Again, white participants specifically reported they held no bias towards blacks.
Vanman said he will continue his research at Emory to analyze if facial expressions can truly predict racial prejudice in the laboratory. More specifically, his work will focus on demonstrating the predictive validity of physiological measures. He currently is writing a paper that discusses how black participants indicated a preference for pictures showing blacks.
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