New York: A mere "black" sounding name makes people imagine a larger, more dangerous person, finds a new study that explores racial bias and how people use their mind's eye to imagine someone as either threatening or high-status.
The University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) study sought to understand how the human brain's mechanism for interpreting social status evolved from the same mental systems that our early ancestors originally used to process threats.
In a series of studies involving more than 1,500 people, the researchers found that an unknown black male is conceived of similarly to an unknown white male who has been convicted of assault.
"I've never been so disgusted by my own data," said lead author Colin Holbrook from UCLA.
"The amount that our study participants assumed based only on a name was remarkable. A character with a black-sounding name was assumed to be physically larger, more prone to aggression, and lower in status than a character with a white-sounding name," Holbrook said.
During one version of the study, the mostly white participants, aged 18 to mid-70s, from all over the United States and self-identifying as slightly left-of-centre politically, read one of two nearly identical vignettes.
One featured a man named Jamal, DeShawn or Darnell, and the other featured Connor, Wyatt or Garrett. The monikers selected were based on prior research into names most commonly associated with various ethnic groups.
In all versions of the study, participants were asked their intuitive impression of the character's height, build, status, aggressiveness and other factors.
"In essence, the brain's representational system has a toggle switch, such that size can be used to represent either threat or status," said co-author and UCLA anthropology professor Daniel Fessler.
"However, apparently because stereotypes of black men as dangerous are deeply entrenched, it is very difficult for our participants to flip this switch when thinking about black men."
For study participants evaluating black protagonists, dangerous equals big and big equals dangerous, period," Fessler added.
The study was published in the journal Evolution and Human Behaviour.