Stacking the deck: Northwestern researchers demonstrate effect of psychology studies on racial equity

Northwestern psychology researchers found participants use racial prototypes in how they judge risk-takers. (MacKenzie Coffman/Medill)

By MacKenzie Coffman
Medill Reports

Research on stereotyping often aims to understand when and why people hold biased beliefs. Yet, it also reflects the impact that psychology played in forming and perpetuating stereotypes in the first place.

James Wages and Sylvia Perry, who both have Ph.D.s in psychology, published a recent study that demonstrated how racial stereotypes seep into how people judge the decisions others make. “Reckless Gambles and Responsible Ventures: Racialized Prototypes of Risk-Taking” shows the negative impact of stereotyping. This is not the first study to do so, but it is one of the most recent in a complicated history of psychology research influencing Black communities and the racial justice movement. 

“Bringing those sorts of truths to light can really help people understand what’s at stake, and that can move these causes forward,” said Wages, the lead author of the study.

Perry, of Northwestern University, and Wages, an assistant professor at the University of Central Arkansas, found that people use racial stereotypes when they judge someone as a reckless risk-taker or a reasonable one. Despite previous research indicating that white men tend to be the most risk-seeking, Wages and Perry found that their sample of 1,603 individuals, consisting predominantly of white people, perceived Black men as more likely to be reckless when they take risks as compared with white men. Participants did not associate white men with recklessness as strongly.

The study has implications for how people ranging from health care professionals to bank workers may bring their bias into work. In a previous interview with Northwestern Now, Perry, who runs the Social Cognition & Intergroup Processes lab, noted that if Black people are perceived as reckless risk-takers, that bias could lead others to be less willing to invest resources in them or take a chance on them. Such implications can affect job prospects, loan applications and many other facets of life. 

“It’s worth taking a step back and considering how much of this decision will be based upon the objective facts that are being presented, versus how much of it is based on any kind of stereotypic associations that (one) might be carrying,” Wages said. 

Yet, these biases have also been ever-present in psychology research itself, since the inception of the field. 

In the late 1800s, the field relied largely on Sir Francis Galton, known for his contributions to statistics, but also for his erroneous conception of eugenics and its problematic assumptions about genetics. For centuries, faulty science perpetuated racist beliefs, such as biological determinism — the idea that our environment has no significant impact, and genetics is the only clay that sculpts who we are. One of the most prominent examples is the century long dedication to researching intelligence, which was used to justify the false idea of racial hierarchy by Galton and others.

“One of the ways that psychologists worked to set themselves apart from ‘softer social sciences,’ was through the use of quantitative methods,” said Ursula Moffitt, who has a doctorate in psychology. “The way that they were used within psychology early on was specifically in intelligence testing, which was specifically and explicitly white supremacist.”

Moffitt, who is white, co-teaches a class on diversity in science with Onnie Rogers, who has a doctorate in applied developmental psychology and runs the Development of Identities in Cultural Environments lab at Northwestern. They aim to teach students about how the field of psychology has perpetuated racism through research methods and topics, and how to improve upon this issue.

For almost as long as racist practices have persisted in psychology research, there have also been psychologists who took a more holistic approach to studying race that included important environmental contexts like systemic racism. Notably, in the 1950s, a study by Kenneth and Mamie Clark about the negative impact of segregation and prejudice was used in the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled in favor of school integration as essential to providing equitable education.

“Before that, I don’t think it was widely known in the public just how harmful and damaging stereotyping and prejudice was, particularly on children,” Wages said.

From the 1970s to 1990s, a wealth of research and literature was published on psychology’s complex relationship with race and identity. William E. Cross, an Evanston native and pioneer in this field, explored how Black Americans’ identity formation had been impacted by white supremacy and racism. His work, along with that of many other prominent psychologists, ultimately shaped how many studies on race and identity are conducted today. 

Despite significant improvements in how research is conducted, there is still progress to be made. As recently as 2020, a group of researchers requested a retraction of their study published in the Psychological Science journal after readers voiced concerns that the study made incomplete assertions about a correlation among IQ, violence and nationality based on data obtained through poor sampling. 

According to Moffitt, a core reason why these issues persist is the erroneous belief that science is conducted in a vacuum free of personal values. Moffitt and Wages reflected that in the world of academia, researchers are often discouraged from being vocal about societal issues. 

“Sometimes researchers are not encouraged to be activists — to not use your research in that way,” Wages said. “I think as long as you’re doing sound research that’s based on science, then it doesn’t really matter. If it’s a truth, or if it’s something that can be observed, then that’s something that should be heard.”

To start fixing the racist systems still present in psychology research, Moffitt said psychologists must recognize the need for all research to consider the individual in relation to their community and environment.

“Recognize that no one is neutral, no science is neutral. Everything we do, we bring with us our positions and experiences,” Moffitt said. “We each have power and have a voice.”

MacKenzie Coffman is a video and broadcast graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @Mac_coffman.

Editor’s note, Feb. 11, 2022, 5:10 p.m.: This story has been updated to correct the affiliation of James Wages, who is with the University of Central Arkansas.