In Brief

When it comes to social situations, people don't like the unexpected, as shown in a recent study in which people performed poorly on cognitive tasks, sometimes even "freezing" like startled animals, when faced with others who defied cultural stereotypes.

In the study, published in the April issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology(Vol. 92, No. 4), lead researcher Wendy Berry Mendes, PhD, of Harvard University, and her colleagues matched participants with a partner meant to surprise them-specifically a young Asian-American woman with a thick Southern drawl. Most of the participants were students at a university in southern California. The fake participants, however, were hired actresses trained by a voice coach to learn an accent specific to Charleston, S.C., Mendes says.

The participants paired up with either the Asian-American southern drawling partners or less surprising combinations of Asian-American partners with local accents, white partners with Southern accents or white partners with local accents. Each pair then had to prepare a speech on the theme of "working together" and play a word-finding game in which they took turns.

Those paired with the surprising partner performed more poorly on the word-finding game, experienced the physical signs of a threat response, such as blood vessel constriction, and even smiled less compared with participants matched with the more stereotypically consistent partners.

Watching a participant's initial meeting with one of the surprising partners was particularly revealing, Mendes says.

"She'd begin the introduction with 'Hi, I'm Jenny and I'm from Charleston, South Carolina,' and our participants just froze and stared at this truly surprising person....Their body posture stayed closed and more defensive during the interaction," she says.

The findings hold implications for inter-group contact, Mendes says. Specifically, the results suggest that providing quality contact between different groups of people could mitigate the "awkward" interactions videotaped during the experiment, she says.

The finding dovetails with past research in which white people paired with African Americans for a cooperative task became stressed and anxious, unless they had African Americans as close friends in their personal lives, Mendes says. Both studies suggest that it isn't racism, per se, that drives people's anxiety. Rather, uncertainty and dealing with the unfamiliar may simply tax a person's cognitive resources, she says.

The results may help explain why members of minority groups who reach higher levels of socioeconomic status still experience higher rates of physical and mental illness: Part of the problem may be the stress of dealing with others' anxious reactions to them.

-C. Munsey