In Brief

Do you like Mike? Your answer may depend on the context in which the question--referring to Michael Jordan in this case--is framed, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (Vol. 132, No. 3). The study--which examined whether racial stereotyping occurs automatically or varies according to the category, such as star athlete, in which a person is being judged--found that context does make a difference.

"This finding shows that a given individual--let's say Michael Jordan--will not invariably elicit the same automatic attitude in a given perceiver," explains lead author Jason Mitchell, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University. "Rather, if the situation were such that his race were highlighted, it wouldn't be surprising if a more negative automatic attitude were elicited than under other circumstances--for instance, when his role as an athlete was highlighted."

For example, in one experiment, Mitchell and colleagues gave 82 white undergraduate volunteers from Yale University two categorization tasks. Before doing the tasks, participants were asked to rate the degree to which they liked 19 well-known athletes, 13 of whom were black. They were also asked to rate the degree to which they disliked 19 male politicians, 14 of whom were white.

Participants then received an individually tailored list of the three black athletes they rated highest and the three white politicians they rated lowest. When the names on the list were categorized by occupation--athletes or politicians--black "athletes" elicited a positive automatic response in participants.

This was in line with their consciously reported attitudes of "liking." When the same list was categorized by race--"black or white"--participants responded negatively to the black category and positively to the white category, despite having consciously reported liking the black athletes and disliking the white politicians.

"This work suggests that the automatic attitude elicited by a target [such as Jordan] will be influenced by the situation in which one encounters that person," concludes Mitchell. "Although automatic attitudes have been characterized as invariant, 'prepackaged' responses to people or objects in the world around us, I think this work helps establish a case for the inherent malleability of implicit processes within social cognition."