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Study: Teaching liberals about white privilege reveals 'startling' blind spot

Psychologists looked at how liberals and conservatives react after learning about "white privilege".

West Virginia men. 2018. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
  • Psychologists looked at how liberals and conservatives viewed poor people after learning about "white privilege".
  • Conservatives didn't show much sympathy for poor people regardless of race.
  • Liberals seemed to blame poor white people for their problems.

Is there a blind spot in the sympathies of liberals? A recent study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, looked at what happened when "social liberals" were educated about "white privilege". While they did become more aware of the benefits being white might afford in society, the liberal-minded also exhibited less sympathy for poor white people.

Polls show that liberals are generally more focused on race and racism as being a bigger social problem than conservatives. To gauge whether other issues like the poverty of whites is perceived as less important, the team of researchers carried out two studies.

The participants included 650 liberals and conservatives from all over the U.S. for an online study. 68.8% of the subjects were white and 16% were black.

The researchers randomly split the participants into two cohorts. One was read about white privilege and was asked to identify some examples of privileges enjoyed by white people in the U.S. For example, "White people are never asked to speak for all people of their racial group". The other group received no such instruction.

Participants were then read passages about a poor white man or a poor Black man. He was identified by name (Kevin), his location (NYC), and the facts that he was raised by a single mom and lived in poverty all his life. Now he was supposedly on welfare. The only difference in the biographical information was whether he was black or white.

What the scientists found was that liberals who learned about white privilege were more sympathetic to Kevin if he was described as being Black (rather than white). Conservatives, on the other hand, were found to express low levels of sympathy for poor people, no matter what race they were. It also didn't matter to them if they read about white privilege prior to that.

In a finding that the study's author and psychology professor Erin Cooley of Colgate University called "startling" in her article for Vice, being educated in white privilege didn't grow the sympathy for poor black people among the liberals. Rather they blamed poor white people for their poverty, as if they could have done better considering all the privileges they supposedly received because of their race.

Professor Cooley, who describes herself as a liberal, thinks the assumptions behind such thinking leaves the poor white people neglected because they are "violating stereotypes of their race (i.e., that white people are wealthy)" and this "may present its own complexities to how white people feel subjectively and how they are treated when they are poor."

Why “I’m not racist” is only half the story

Cooley points out that despite the fact that their studies highlight the complexities among how Americans of all persuasions feel about race and class, teaching about white privilege is extremely important. According to the professor, such information highlights persistent societal racism like police brutality. It is also important, says Cooley, to take a more "intersectional lens" towards talking about privilege. Privilege can come from numerous factors – class, gender, age, ability, sexual orientation etc. As such, "most of us have experienced both privilege and marginalization at some point," she points out.

You can read the study, very descriptively titled "Complex Intersections of Race and Class: Among Social Liberals, Learning About White Privilege Reduces Sympathy, Increases Blame, and Decreases External Attributions for White People Struggling With Poverty," here.

The research was carried out by the psychologists Erin Cooley and William Cipolli III of Colgate University, as well as Ryan F. Lei from New York University, and Jazmin L. Brown-Iannuzzi of the University of Kentucky.

Neom, Saudi Arabia's $500 billion megacity, reaches its next phase

Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.

Credit: Neom
Technology & Innovation
  • The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
  • The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
  • It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
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A new study suggests that a century-old vaccine may reduce the severity of coronavirus cases.

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Surprising Science
  • A new study finds a country's tuberculosis BCG vaccination is linked to its COVID-19 mortality rate.
  • More BCG vaccinations is connected to fewer severe coronavirus cases.
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Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

Image Point Fr / Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
  • Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
  • Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.

Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

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