A new study led by Cydney Dupree, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management, has found that White Americans who hold liberal political views tend to use language that makes them appear less competent in an effort to connect with racial minorities.
The study analyzed the words used in campaign speeches delivered by Democratic and Republican presidential candidates to different audiences over the years. The research team scanned speeches delivered by White candidates over a 25-year period. About half of the speeches were addressed to mostly minority audiences, such as at a Black church. The other half were given to mostly White audiences. The researchers analyzed the text of these speeches for words related to competence and words related to warmth.
The results showed that Democratic candidates used fewer competence-related words in speeches delivered to mostly minority audiences than they did in speeches delivered to mostly White audiences. There was no significant difference in Republican candidates.
This prompted the researchers to conduct a series of new experiments in which White participants were asked to respond to a hypothetical partner, half of which were given a stereotypical White name, such as Emily, and half were given a stereotypical Black name, such as Lakisha. The participants were asked to select from a list of words for an email to their partner. Each word was scored on how warm or competent it appeared. The participants also completed a questionnaire about their political views.
The results found that liberal individuals were less likely to use words that would make them appear highly competent when the person they were addressing was presumed to be Black rather than White. There was no significant difference in conservative individuals.
The researchers suspect this behavior is due to a liberal person’s desire to connect with other races. “There’s a lot of research focused on biased individuals and how holding bias, especially implicit bias, can influence social interactions,” said lead author Cydney Dupree. “But that leaves a lot of people out. My hope is that this work will help include well-intentioned people who see themselves as allies but who may be unwittingly contributing to group divides. There is a broader need to include them in the conversation.”
Dr. Dupree is a graduate of Brown University, where she majored in psychology. She holds a master’s degree in social psychology and a Ph.D. in psychology and social policy from Princeton University.
The study, “Self-Presentation in Interracial Settings: The Competence Downshift by White Liberals,” was published on the website of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Susan T. Fiske, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University, co-authored the study. It may be accessed here.