…I took the road most comfortably travelled by…

The following post is a continuation of a discussion we began this morning, looking at a paper by Daniel Effron and colleagues. In it, the authors conduct a number of experiments to investigate a phenomenon in which white people demonstrate a tendency to use salient examples of being “not racist” (choosing not to accuse an innocent black people in favour of a more guilty-seeming white person of a crime) to license more racist behaviours in the future.

The fourth investigation the authors conducted invited people to try and remember the number of racist decisions they didn’t make, after presenting them with statements that were either clearly racist, ambiguously racist, or racially ambiguous (i.e., no racial content). The authors hypothesized that, given a clear-cut and obvious example of a time when they were “not racist”, the drive to appear “not racist” would be satisfied, thus obviating the need to introduce “not racist” narratives into their memory. In other words, if you have a ready memory of choosing not to be overtly racist, you will have less motivation to seem “not racist” in a subsequent decision.

To test this, participants were invited to make similar accusations of guilt between a number of suspects, some of whom were black and some of whom were white. No black ‘suspect’ was likely to be guilty of the crime (had a strong alibi, no material evidence, co-operated with police, etc.) whereas some white suspects were likely (had weak/no alibi, had weapon on their person, was hostile, etc.). After that task, participants were asked to rate their agreement with a number of statements, of the type “X is more likely to be criminal/violent than Y”. X was worded “Most blacks/Some blacks/Some people”, varying between questions and participants. Y was worded “Whites/Some whites/other people”. Clearly, some of these statement combinations turned out to be blatantly racist, others were ambiguously racist (are some blacks more likely to be criminal than some whites? Maybe…)

After the second task, participants were asked how many times they had been presented with the opportunity to accuse a black suspect but had chosen a white suspect instead. Keep in mind that all of the black suspects in this study were innocent:

A figure from the study

What we see in the above figure is that when people were asked to consider statements that seemed racist (but were not obviously racist), they took psychological comfort in remembering the many times that they had been “not racist” in the recent past – even when those times didn’t actually happen. In other words, people experiencing cognitive dissonance over their racial uprightness revised their memory and invented “not racist” decisions to assure themselves that they were ‘pure’.

Exploring this further, the authors conducted another experiment in which the suspects were racially ambiguous (i.e., it was not immediately clear from the provided pictures that the person was black or white). As you might expect from the previous findings, participants were more likely to identify the innocent suspects as being black when they were presented with racially ambiguous statements than those who had rejected clearly racist statements. Put another way, participants revised their own memories to create opportunities to assure themselves that they were “not racist”.

Finally, a set of participants were asked to write an essay in which they defended either a racially ambiguous statement (the ones chosen were the statements from the previous study that had the highest levels of disagreement) or a similar statement that was racially neutral (about whether teenagers were more criminal/violent than people over 30). They were also asked to complete a task in which they had to accuse a number of suspects whose race was ambiguous. As previously observed, people who were asked to defend a position that might make them look racist, they ‘remembered’ exonerated suspects as being blacker.


I understand the dilemma that our current understanding of race presents people in majority groups: few people feel comfortable with the idea that they might be racist, and yet we often find ourselves espousing beliefs or engaging in behaviours that may seem racist. There are a number of ways in which people resolve this internal conflict: some simply attack the definition of ‘racist’, others engage in angry, feverish denials of the implications of their behaviour, and as we see in this study some will quietly assure themselves that they’re not racist by conjuring (sometimes out of thin air, evidently) memories of times when they avoided blatant racist behaviour.

What lessons can we take away from this study? Well first of all, we should be particularly attentive to the fact that participants in all of these studies rated low on measures of overt prejudice. This wasn’t an example of what “racists” do compared to what “non-racists” do – this is about an implicit and subconscious process of what the authors call “moral licensing”, where a foregone opportunity to be bad makes us feel justified in exhibiting behaviours that we might not otherwise consider permissible.

Perhaps it is because racism is seen as a moral failing rather than a cognitive failing that this kind of licensing occurs. If racist behaviours were contextualized as the product of bad ideas rather than bad people, would these differences disappear? That is my basic suspicion, and I would like to see some investigation of whether it is possible to manipulate the moral component of racism, and what effect that has on implicit-based racism. It would also be worthwhile to see if this behaviour exists in non-white groups toward white groups – my guess would be that it is not symmetrical (i.e., black participants won’t demonstrate the same moral licensing that white participants did), but it would be interesting to see that demonstrated.

Further, I am curious as to whether an additional behaviour – that of self-effacement in the presence of racially ambiguous situations (i.e., an arch-liberal tendency to non-rationally favour black people as a method of demonstrating “non racist” beliefs) can be observed experimentally.


Many of the behaviours demonstrated by people who have been accused of racism comes into focus once we recognize that ‘racist’ is not seen as a descriptive of behaviour, but rather as a moral condemnation. I feel that this use of the term ‘racist’ prevents us from addressing the issue accurately, as it causes us to retreat into a posture that defends our self-esteem, rather than causing us to examine our motivation. The answer is not, as some suggest, to stop using the term ‘racist’, but to do a better job of identifying what ‘racist’ actually means, rather than what we’ve come to believe it means.

What this study demonstrates fairly clearly is that, as long as we continue to make the conversation about “racists” and “not racists”, we’re going to see excuse after fabricated excuse brought into the conversation to safeguard our self-esteem. Any progress we want to see on this issue will require us to have an evidence-based (rather than tradition-based) understanding of what racism is and how it works.

And that will make all the difference.

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  1. says

    Thought provoking. I think you are on to something with the difference between moral and cognitive domains. Even in the most sincere people, morality is at least as much about the external as the internal. It reminds me of Dennetts distinction that most believers don’t really believe in god, but believe that believing in god is the right thing to do. That’s how it works in the moral domain. Being non-racist is morally the right thing to do, but then when the culturally imbued racist impulses and thoughts arise, we feel that’s wrong and look for ways to prop ourselves back up again. So I feel great about myself when I’m friendly to the black clerk at the drugstore, then feel like crap when I walk past a young black man of a certain look and realize that my eyes dart around in automatic fear. I know it’s just a guy. I eventually nod and say good morning or something lame, but that racially charged fear has been culturally inserted much deeper than the idea that being racist is morally wrong. I feel a failing and look for something to make the failure stop making me feel bad.

    It it weren’t so late, I might try to think how this might all apply to the sexism shit-storm raging in other areas of FTB right now.

  2. smrnda says

    I think looking at racism as a cognitive rather than a moral problem could really help people both believe that (even unintentionally) they are influenced by racism and that it’s something that you may need to consciously correct for since it’s affects you whether you’re aware of it or not. I sometimes think just want to tell people that we live in a racist world, so racism has infected our thinking and clouded our judgment the same way that advertizing has – it’s going to have an effect just from how much we’ve been exposed to it.

    All said, thanks for all the great studies that how real empirical data on the existence of racism.

  3. says

    I feel bad that I don’t get these studies up more often, but they are a lot more work to read, interpret, break down, and write than a newspaper article is. I’m going to try and get better about it, but can’t make any promises for the time being.

  4. jesse says

    I think the moral component is salient here, and your definition of a cognitive vs. moral failing is a good one.

    One reason: racist, sexist, any -ist are almost always used in moral terms. But there are is a problem with this. One aspect is the defensive reaction — after all, nobody but a White Power movement skinhead is going to say they are proud racists. I mean, I haven’t met anyone, even someone who says something racist, that racism is a good idea or that they like being called that.

    The other is something I have been mulling over a lot lately, and that’s a tendency within progressive movements to frame things in terms that sound an awful lot like when heavy Christians talk about being ‘saved.’

    In the US it might be a remnant of the very evangelically-tinged origins of some of the progressive movements — I mean, anti-slavery started in a number of churches on religious grounds, and certainly there’s a rather strong bit of church influence on even the most radical parts of the black Civil Rights movement. And while modern evangelicals don’t like to remember this, a good chunk of their membership would once have been in the Farmer-Labor party.

    Anyhow, point is, I often feel that similar to the concept of original sin, when we talk abut racism or sexism in moral terms, and then say that our culture is deeply sexist or racist, then one reaction will be to throw up your hands and say “what the heck am I supposed to do then? I am automatically a sexist/racist/ other -ist no matter what. Since there is nothing I can do I why bother? You are just saying I am an awful human being and I know I am not.”

    I mean, nobody wants to be called an awful person, you know? We all want to be liked unless you’re a sociopath.

    Religions, by the way, use that moral component when they oppress people. Because they are in a much more powerful position they really can mess up people’s lives with this, by telling you if you are different (you’re gay, for example, or a man/woman who doesn’t fit gender roles) that you can never be “clean” or “good.” And that moral component set up that way is why, I think, people do the kind of moral calculus the study talks about- — it just seems so much like when Catholics talk about penance.

    Obviously anti-racists and feminists aren’t in this powerful position that religions are. But I’m saying that when things get presented as a moral issue, it’s easy to just walk away — you can’t do that with culturally dominant religions, capitalism, or a lot of other things. So feminism and a lot of anti-racism gets easy to brush off.

    This also applies to other progressive movements I think — like for instance the environmental and vegan/vegetarian folks take on a real ascetic streak. Think of how some vegans even, frame their choice: it’s always in terms of giving up something to be a better person — “I don’t eat meat and therefore I am morally upright” — and on top of that, health claims that are anther way to say “live forever.” Sounds an awful lot like “believe in X and go to heaven.” But sometimes as lefties we have a tough time being honest with ourselves about that kind of stuff, which is why people find it simpler to keep kosher, which has dietary rules that are, let’s face it, even more arbitrary.

    Hence why i like the whole bit about cognitive failures as opposed to moral ones. It sort of reframes the political strategy a bit and maybe offers a more judo-like response to the problem of convincing people. It leaves someone an ‘out’ where they don’t have to say they are horrible people.

    (I’ll admit my own biases here: I grew up what would have once been called a red-diaper baby, so I am sure I have all sorts of psych issues there that have colored my perceptions, but I believe strongly that a good fight is one you win).

  5. smrnda says

    Something that changed my thinking about racism was a Jesse Jackson quote where he mentioned sometimes, if he’s alone at night and hears someone, he turns around and experiences a bit of relief if the person wasn’t a young Black male. (I can’t recall the source of the quote.) In other words, a Black man who spends a lot of time fighting racism realizes that regrettably, he’s been influenced by racist thinking too.

    Another issue was I had lots of friends who weren’t white, and everybody wanted to be culturally sensitive as possible, so we had lots of conversations where we asked ‘hey is this racist?’

  6. says

    @jesse –

    racist, sexist, any -ist are almost always used in moral terms. But there are is a problem with this.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue recently. To me it goes a long way to explaining much of the political polarization we see these days. Someone who supports their position on moral grounds is less likely to compromise or even listen to debate about an issue. The way people on the left talk about taxing the rich is often colored by a moral judgement that whatever you did to get that much money must be morally wrong and we need to punish you by taking it away, so raise the taxes. But a lot of the population isn’t going to accept that moral judgement because even if they aren’t rich, they may aspire to be and you’re telling them that their aspiration is immoral. It’s better to argue cognitively, that concentrating too much money with the rich is bad because it clogs up the economy in a bad way, that the government isn’t just going to put the taxes it collects from the rich into a big bonfire just to punish them, it’s going to spend the money, putting it back into the economy where it circulates and makes everyone better off including the rich. Even if I agree with people on the left that higher taxes might be good, I don’t agree with their justification to enforce their moral judgement via the tax code anymore than I agree with the right when they try to enforce their moral judgements through the criminal code.

    But back on racism, I like how the study suggests that the moral judgement is happening inside a person rather than being cast upon them. This is possibly why some people get overly defensive about mild criticism in realms like racism and sexism. Even if the criticism is coming from the cognitive realm, it may be given the moral charge by the person hearing it, who then reacts defensively as if they are being told they are morally tainted.

    I don’t think we can totally get rid of this moral mode of thinking. Moral thinking is just one of the many cognitive shortcuts we have developed over time. Fairly simple moral rules are a lot easier to apply than complicated cognitive analysis, so it’s easy to see how we might have developed a tendency to use them as a cognitive crutch. But in this modern world, we probably should come up with a way to loosen the grip of moral judgements on our behavior at least a little bit, allowing for the cognitive side to re-think things from time to time.

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