Moving While Black: Intergroup Attitudes Influence Judgments of Speed

The Journal of Experimental Psychology recently published an article exploring the relationship between intergroup attitudes and perceived motion. In the article, Kenrick et al note that most experiments on the relationship between race and perceived threat collect data from subjects looking at static images. The authors argue that understanding motion perception in interracial encounters is extremely relevant to everyday life, considering that we live in a dynamic world in which all interpersonal interactions involve at least some movement between the involved parties. Studying motion perception can provide us with information relating to a person’s affective state, social category membership, and intentions. As such, the Kenrick et al decided to explore the effect of motion perception on interracial encounters by considering whether interracial threat shapes the speed with which white subjects judge black people. Their main hypotheses were that white people who feel anxiety around black people might experience subjective time expansion when black people appear to be approaching, and that this experience of time expansion when viewing approaching black people will lead threatened white people to perceive black people as moving more slowly compared with their experience of white people approaching in the same manner.

The first experiment used faces taken from stimuli developed for the Implicit Association Test and presented them on a computer screen to white subjects. The size of the faces were manipulated to create the perception of movement toward the subjects. Following each face, the participants rated the speed of approach on a Likert-type scale ranging from 1 (very slow) to 8 (very fast). After this section of the experiment, participants completed the Intergroup Anxiety Scale to measure interracial threat. Kenrick et al found a reliable interaction between these two types of measurement and concluded that as intergroup threat increased, black targets were judged as moving more slowly relative to white targets. This interaction stayed significant even when the study was conducted in person by a white female experimenter.

To test the hypothesis that white people high in intergroup anxiety will not perceive receding black faces as moving more slowly compared with white faces, participants completed the Semantic Self-Assessment Manakin (which measures affective reactions) as well as the Intergroup Anxiety Scale before being shown receding faces on the computer. Kenrick et al found a significant three-way interaction between intergroup anxiety, target race, and direction of perceived motion. Consistent with Experiment 1, as intergroup anxiety increased, Black forward-moving targets were judged as moving more slowly relative to White targets; however, this was not case with backward-moving targets.

Kenrick et al’s final experiment tested whether intergroup anxiety would be associated with perceiving time as passing more slowly when participants judged moving black faces, which would mediate the relationship between threat and speed ratings. They were successfully able to replicate the findings of experiments 1 and 2 — as intergroup anxiety increased, time seemed to pass more slowly when moving black faces relative to white faces.

The slowing bias found in this study is consistent with reports of time expansion by people who have experienced threatening events. The findings are also consistent with the idea that receding threats are less worthy of attention than approaching threats, which explains why the slowing bias was not present with backward-moving targets.

It would have been interesting if the experimenters had asked participants to complete Harvard’s Black-White attitude Implicit Association Test as part of their study. This test attempts to uncover implicit race preferences that people are either unwilling or unable to properly report to experimenters. Although the majority of white respondents show a preference for white faces over black faces, black Americans are split 50–50 between preference for white and black faces. Since Kenrick et al used stimuli designed for the IAT in their study, it might be worth conducting the experiments with black subjects (rather than exclusively white subjects) and exploring the relationship between scores on the Black-White attitude IAT and the difference in speed with which participants perceive motion black faces versus white faces.

Kenrick, Andreana C., Stacey Sinclair, Jennifer Richeson, Sara C. Verosky, and Janetta Lun. “Moving While Black: Intergroup Attitudes Influence Judgments of Speed.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 145.2 (2016): 147–54. Web.