Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles gave participants in a study a short essay describing men in a scenario where they walked into a bar, bumped into another man and got into a brief confrontation. A third of the participants were given a “neutral” version of the story. A third of the participants were given added information that the man in the story was a college graduate and successful in business. The final group was told that the character in the story had been convicted of aggravated assault.
The main character of the story was either given a name usually associated with Whites such as Wyatt or Garrett or a name generally considered to be Black such as DeShawn or Darnell.
Participants were then asked to give an assessment of the character’s height, build, status, aggressiveness and other factors.
The results showed that White and Black characters who were either successful or convicted of aggravated assault were perceived similarly. But participants who were given the “neutral” scenario perceived the Black characters to be similar in size and aggressiveness to the White character with a criminal record.
Daniel Fessler, a professor of anthropology and the director of the Center for Behavior, Evolution and Culture at UCLA and coauthor of the study, said that the larger the participants imagined the characters with Black-sounding names, the lower they envisioned their financial success, social influence and respect in their community. Conversely, the larger they pictured those with White-sounding names, the greater they envisioned their status.
Colin Holbrook, a research scientist in anthropology at UCLA and lead author of the study, stated that “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.”
“I’ve never been so disgusted by my own data,” Holbrook added.
The study, “Looming Large in Others’ Eyes: Racial Stereotypes Illuminate Dual Adaptations for Representing Threat Versus Prestige as Physical Size,” was published on the website of the journal Evolution & Human Behavior. It may be accessed here.