Can Thinking About Other People’s Positive Traits Reduce Racial Bias?
When we think about the positive qualities of our friends and family members, we often feel a ray of gratitude or pride—but can this regard for others go on to trigger more positive racial attitudes?
My colleagues and I set out to explore whether engaging in a brief mental exercise of admiring someone else’s positive traits could lessen racial bias.
Our Need To Self-Enhance
As human beings, we have a strong need to see ourselves positively. Some psychologists have gone so far as to say this desire for self-enhancement is ubiquitous. For instance, we are more likely to notice, think about, and remember positive information about ourselves, and to lose sight of or forget negative self-related information. We also tend to think of ourselves as more competent, more moral, and more attractive than other people.
Unfortunately, this need to cast our groups and ourselves in a favorable light can sometimes incite negative attitudes toward other groups. So, we wondered: if self-enhancement can worsen our social biases, can promoting or enhancing others reduce them?
Our Capacity To Think Well Of Others
Although the need for self-enhancement is widespread, people also want to connect to and think warmly of others. Not only do we want to be loved and appreciated by others, but we also want to be the ones doing the loving and appreciating. The basic distinction between self- and other-regard is at the heart of numerous psychological theories, and characterizes many of our struggles within our personal and professional relationships. And while these forces are not necessarily opposite ends of a continuum, they do reflect different drives—one that serves our own self-esteem, and one that lifts up and honors other people.
Enhancing The Self Versus Enhancing Someone Else
In a first study, we compared the effects of positive self-regard versus the positive regard of others. We wanted to see if engaging in a brief reflection on the positive traits of close others would cause a trickle-down effect on racial attitudes. We expected that turning attention to the positive qualities of a significant other would cross over to improve racial biases.
We asked participants to engage in two writing exercises—one where they reflected on a positive trait of someone they know, and another where they reflected on a positive trait in themselves. The traits had to be character-based—not superficial or physical. In both cases, participants identified a positive trait in themselves or their friend/acquaintance, and then wrote about how they or their friend/acquaintance exemplified the trait in daily life. Half the participants wrote about their friend first and half wrote about themselves first.
Then, we measured participants’ level of implicit racial bias using the implicit association test, which gauges spontaneous evaluations of faces of White or Black people. We found that implicit racial bias against Black faces was lower after participants had engaged in the process of thinking positively about their friend or acquaintance, compared to when they had been thinking positively of themselves. The process of admiring someone else’s talents or attributes rather than one’s own seemed to carry over to improve automatic racial attitudes.
Next, we examined group-based traits rather than personal traits. Non-Black participants were assigned to reflect on either a positive quality of Black Americans or a positive quality of their own ethno-cultural group. Another third of participants were assigned to a control condition where they engaged in neutral self-reflection. We then measured participants’ explicitly measured racism. After engaging in the pro-Black reflection, participants reported significantly less racism than in the pro-self or neutral-self groups.
In a final study, we attempted to identify the factors that underlie people’s capacity for augmenting or enhancing others rather than themselves. We found that humility—the tendency to see the self as no better or worse than others—was positively related to the enhancement of others but negatively related to the enhancement of self. In turn, the enhancement of others protected against both racism and sexism, whereas self-enhancement did not.
Our findings highlight the carry-over effects of appreciating others. Because self-enhancement is pervasive and has the potential to hamper positive social relations, it’s important to identify ways to counteract it. Our research shows that a simple mental exercise of reflecting on the positive attributes of other people or other groups—ingroup or outgroup—has the power to lessen racial biases.
Prejudice is common and often severe. To make matters worse, many efforts to reduce prejudice are unsuccessful because they are punitive and restrictive, causing people to disengage. Here, we offer a simple strategy that is positive and affirming, and that may foster not just gratitude and pride, but fairness and equality as well.
For Further Reading
Legault, L., Coleman, D., Jurchak, K., & Scaltsas, N. (2021). Reducing prejudice by enhancing the other rather than the self. Self and Identity https://doi.org/10.1080/15298868.2021.1965016
Onu, D., Kessler, T., Andonovska-Trajkovska, D., Fritsche, I., Midson, G. R., & Smith, J. R. (2016). Inspired by the outgroup: A social identity analysis of intergroup admiration. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 19(6), 713-731. https://doi.org/10.1177/1368430216629811
Scholl, A., Sassenberg, K., Scheepers, D., Ellemers, N., & de Wit, F. (2017). A matter of focus: Power‐ holders feel more responsible after adopting a cognitive other‐focus, rather than a self‐focus. British Journal of Social Psychology, 56(1), 89-102. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjso.12177
Tangney, J. P. (2000). Humility: Theoretical perspectives, empirical findings and directions for future research. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 19(1), 70-82. https://doi.org/10.1521/jscp.2000.19.1.70
Lisa Legault is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Clarkson University in Northern New York. She studies the motivational foundations of prosocial and nonprejudiced attitudes and behaviors.