SCIENCE
10/08/2015 06:38 pm ET

New Study Confirms Depressing Truth About Names And Racial Bias

Scientist has "never been so disgusted" by his own data.

UCLA
UCLA researchers found that people envisioned men with stereotypically black names like Jamal or DeShawn as bigger and more violent compared to men with stereotypically white names.

Students with stereotypically "black"-sounding names tend to be labeled as troublemakers by teachers. Job applicants with such names are less likely than their white-sounding counterparts to get called in for interviews. When residents with "black"-sounding names contact their local government for information about schools or libraries, they are less likely to receive a response. 

Adding to this troubling compendium of results is a disturbing new study, published Thursday in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior. The study of mostly white participants shows that men with black-sounding names are more likely to be imagined as physically large, dangerous and violent than those with stereotypically white-sounding names.

Dr. Colin Holbrook, a research scientist at the UCLA Center for Behavior, Evolution, and Culture and lead author of the study, said that he has "never been so disgusted" by his own data.

"The participant sample, despite being slightly left of center politically, automatically attributed violence to individuals based solely on having names like Darnell or Juan; whereas names such as Connor automatically led to expectations of prestige and status," Holbrook told The Huffington Post in an email. "This seems to clearly echo the fear of black and Latino men in our society, which is ironic and disturbing as they are often the victims of violence--precisely because people are afraid of them."

For the study, the researchers conducted a series of experiments involving about 1,500 mostly white adults. In the first experiment, participants were asked to read one of two nearly identical stories about a main character who bumped into a man at a bar, and the man angrily responded "Watch where you're going, a--hole!"

In one version of the story, the character's name was either Jamal, DeShawn or Darnell. In another version, the character's name was either Connor, Wyatt or Garrett.

In the second experiment, the same story was read, but this time the main character was described as either a successful college graduate or business owner, or as someone who had been convicted of assault. In both experiments, the participants were asked to report their impressions of the main character's height, build, status and aggressiveness, among other characteristics. Jamal, DeShawn or Darnell were invariably considered to be larger in size and more aggressive than Connor, Wyatt or Garrett, the researchers found.

This seems to clearly echo the fear of black and Latino men in our society, which is ironic and disturbing as they are often the victims of violence -- precisely because people are afraid of them. Dr. Colin Holbrook, lead author

"In essence, the brain’s representational system has a toggle switch, such that size can be used to represent either threat or status," Dr. Daniel Fessler, director of the UCLA center and a co-author of the study, said in a written statement. "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."

In fact, the larger in size the "black-sounding" character was imagined to be, the lower was his imagined financial success and social status. He was also deemed to be more violent. In contrast, for characters with white-sounding names, larger size corresponded with higher status.

"The surprising finding was the difference between the white and black characters with respect to violence and status," Holbrook said in the email.

"Put simply, white characters with names like Connor or Garrett could be imagined as somewhat violent, but this did not lower (or affect) the amount of social prestige that they were imagined to have," he said. "By contrast, if black characters with names like Darnell or DeShawn were imagined as having a temper, this was strongly incompatible with the amount of status that they were imagined to have in society. We initially expected tendencies toward violence to lower the status attributed to the white characters, too, but this was not the case."

In a third experiment, the researchers performed similar comparisons with Latino and East Asian-sounding names. Most participants imagined members of the former group to be larger, more violent and lower in socioeconomic status, the New York Post reported.

As study after study seems to show that people with names that sound Latino or black are often the subjects of discrimination, what can be done to combat these racist stereotypes?

"The first step is to become aware of the prejudices we hold," Holbrook said. "We should accept that, in all likelihood, largely unconscious and unfounded negative stereotypes are patterned in our minds. Knowing that prejudicial stereotypes are embedded within us can help us to control whether we allow them to affect the way we treat people who we may view as different."

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