Negative expectations color racial interactions, FSU study says

Despite a culture that increasingly values diversity, many people still find interacting with those from another racial group tense and awkward.

Florida State University psychology Professor E. Ashby Plant has found that people’s concerns about racial bias predicted their level of anxiety about dealing with members of another race and whether they subsequently had positive interracial interactions.

The study, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, also found that those who have a lot of anxiety about dealing with people from another race have a greater desire to avoid those interactions.

"If people expect that interracial interactions are likely to go poorly, they are more anxious about these interactions and less likely to have positive interactions," Plant said.  "Also, if people feel anxious, they will avoid these interactions so there is no opportunity to improve their expectations or overcome the anxiety. It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle."

Plant explored both black and non-black people’s experiences with interracial interactions over time.

For the non-black participants, it was their concern about the likelihood of coming across as biased that predicted their anxiety interacting with black people. For the black participants, their anxiety was determined by their expectations about whether white people would respond with bias against them.

The study builds on Plant’s previous research that found that people who have little experience dealing with members of another race have more anxiety about such interactions and greater expectations that those interactions will be negative.

"For African Americans, personally experiencing overt and even subtle racial bias creates a concern they will be treated with bias," she said. "Non-blacks, on the other hand, are concerned about avoiding racial bias both because of their personal ideals and the negative social implications of such behavior."

In this study both black and non-black participants completed questionnaires. The non-black participants, who included white, Asian and Hispanic students, were asked questions such as, "When interacting with a black person, I would be unsure how to act in order to show him or her that I am not prejudiced," as well as questions about the importance of being non-prejudiced.

After two weeks, the participants were asked to report whether their interactions in the intervening weeks were positive or negative. The researchers found that the non-blacks who had positive expectations about the interaction tended to have more positive contact with black people during the intervening two weeks and be less anxious about the contact.

The questions posed to black participants were similar but were worded to examine responses to interactions with white people. With this group, however, it was their expectations about white people’s racism as opposed to their expectations about their own bias that resulted in interracial anxiety.

Not surprisingly, those who expected white people to respond with bias toward them experienced fewer positive contacts with white people over the next two weeks. In addition, those who wanted to avoid interactions with white people experienced fewer positive interactions with them.

"This study highlights the importance of understanding people’s expectations regarding interracial interactions," Plant said. "The findings suggest that to reduce people’s anxieties in interracial interactions, it may be helpful to focus on approaches that will improve their expectations about such interactions."