The Role of Cognitive Depletion in Perceptions of Bias
Carter, Evelyn R.
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Whites and Blacks disagree about the prevalence of racial bias in America (Norton & Sommers, 2011). This disconnect may be due to differences in the behaviors that each group considers prejudiced (Sommers & Norton, 2006). On average, Blacks believe subtle and blatant behaviors signal prejudice, whereas Whites only believe blatant behaviors signal prejudice. The present study examined how cognitive depletion affects the detection and categorization of subtle and blatant behaviors as prejudiced among Black and White individuals. Participants were cognitively depleted (or not) and then watched a videotaped interracial interaction between a White individual and a Black confederate. In the subtle bias condition, participants learned that the White individual endorsed positive racial attitudes, but then observed them displaying relatively negative, avoidant behaviors during the interaction; in the blatant bias condition, participants learned that the White individual endorsed negative racial attitudes and observed them displaying the same relatively negative behaviors. Participants reported how prejudiced they believed the White partner was and their expectations about future interactions with the White individual. Results revealed that Black participants did not categorize subtle behaviors as prejudiced regardless of their level of depletion. However, cognitive depletion blunted Black participants’ categorization of blatant behaviors as prejudiced. Blacks who were not depleted and exposed to blatant behaviors categorized them as more prejudiced relative to nondepleted participants in the same blatant bias condition. White participants did not categorize subtle and blatant behaviors differently. Instead, cognitive depletion caused Whites to categorization all behaviors as less prejudiced. That is, cognitive depletion made White participants less likely to categorize subtle or blatant behaviors as prejudiced. Mechanisms for these effects were examined and potential implications of this research for future work are discussed.