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UW-Madison social experiment reveals racial discrimination committed by small fraction of people

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Posted at 12:32 PM, Oct 14, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-14 13:35:59-04

MADISON — A new social experiment from the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows that certain types of discrimination on campus are committed by a small fraction of people.

"We were surprised by these results," UW-Madison psychology professor Markus Brauer says. "We tried out one situation, then another one, and so forth. But study after study came back with the same result: Most students did not treat our white actor more positively than the Black, Asian, or Muslim actors."

Brauer and a graduate student Mitchell Campbell created a social experiment that involved monitoring student actors from marginalized backgrounds and how their experiences in various situations differed from that of a non-marginalized student actor.

The student actors representing the marginalized communities were: Black, Asian, Muslim students, and a male student wearing a gay pride T-shirt. They participated in designed experiments in which the students engaged in everyday behaviors on the Madison campus. They recorded who held the door open for them, who helped them pick up something they dropped, who would sit next to them on a bus if the seat was left empty.

Their results published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that the majority of people did not discriminate in these situations. For the most part, they were treated equally to the non-marginalized student actor.

Discrimination did occur, with Black and Muslim actors experiencing the most of it, but the discrimination was caused by a "numerical minority of the individuals whose behavior was observed."

The team of researchers also issued a survey to students asking them relatively similar questions and they got the same result. Marginalized students said a majority of discrimination came from a small group of people.

However given these results, the researchers say that these are not conclusive findings.

"We studied relatively simple behaviors in fleeting public interactions," Brauer says. "We didn't study microaggressions, nor how violently people react to norm transgressions. We also don't know what happens in study groups or how many students make offensive statements in classroom discussions."

Brauer suggests that these results indicate that the 'one-size-fits-all' approach to increasing racial tolerance isn't the most effective approach. Rather, to promote and get more people to be inclusive, Brauer suggests more of a targeted approach on the "moveable middle" - those who are "neither particularly strong positive or negative attitudes about diversity."

"These are the people we can easily get to behave more inclusively towards peers from underrepresented groups," he says. "If we just gave them the right tools, and gave them more information on how to do that, it can make a big difference."

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