Digest: What else can you expect from a Crappo?

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‘What else can you expect from a Crappo?’

Which slur is worse: ‘cracker’ or the ‘n-word’? After a July 2013 debate on CNN in which a panel discussed this exact question, researchers from NYU – Abu Dhabi, The Sage Colleges, and Tilburg University set out to determine why people might perceive slurs directed at some groups as more offensive than those directed at others – and whether group status has anything to do with it.

P.J. Henry, Sarah Butler and Mark Brandt first gathered over 200 college students and asked them to generate the most offensive word that they could think of for 15 target groups (like ‘African-Americans’, ‘obese people’, or ‘highly intelligent people’). After generating these words, participants then had to rate the offensiveness of each word, and the relative status of each target group in American society.

As expected, there was a strong negative correlation between perceived status and offensiveness – the lower in status participants perceived a group to be, the more offensive they thought that slurs directed at that group were. For example, slurs directed against European-Americans (like ‘cracker’ or ‘honkey’) or men (like ‘dickhead’) were seen as significantly less offensive than slurs directed against the mentally disabled (e.g. ‘retard’), obese (e.g. ‘fat ass’), or African-Americans (e.g. the ‘n-word’). These differences were also reflected in the perceived status of these groups. Men, European-Americans, straight people, and highly intelligent people all enjoyed perceived group statuses that averaged around 8.5 out of 9 (and the offensiveness of their group-based slurs hovered between 3 and 6 on an 11-point scale). On the other hand, groups like the mentally ill, mentally disabled, Arab-Americans, obese people, Latino(a)s, gay people, and African-Americans had average statuses below 5 on the 9-point scale, and the offensiveness of slurs against them averaged between 7 and 9 on the 11-point scale.

However, the obvious flaw in this study is its correlational nature – it is impossible to tell the causal direction, if any, that this relationship might take. Are slurs more offensive because the groups are lower in status, or do the groups possess low status because the slurs against their groups are so much worse? Or is there a separate variable entirely explaining this association?

In order to test this question experimentally, the researchers first had to somehow find a ‘slur’ that would be completely separated from all of the ones we already know, with their historical/cultural entanglements and all of the confounding factors that would accompany them.

The researchers solved this conundrum by making up a brand new slur of their very own. Over 250 participants read a story about ‘creative developers’, a group in a hypothetical workplace that either make very good money, have very good benefits, get three-day weekends and are very important and influential (high status) or make very little money, have no benefits, have to work on the weekends and are not important or influential at all (low status). The participants then imagined hearing someone in payroll derogate one of the creative developers for not understanding something, finishing up by saying, ‘What else can you expect from a crappo?’ Crappo, as the vignette explains, is a derogatory combination of the words ‘creative’ and ‘poser’.
As expected, participants who thought that creative developers were a low-status group rated the term ‘crappo’ as significantly more offensive than those who thought that the creative developers were a high-status group. Importantly, they also thought that the ‘crappo’ in question would feel significantly more insulted, bad about himself, and angry if his group was low-status – and this difference in expected emotional reactions explained (at least partially) the difference in perceived offensiveness.

Overall, group status is an important determinant in how ‘offensive’ we perceive slurs to be. Slurs directed at lower-status groups in society are seen as significantly more offensive as those directed at higher-status groups, at least in part because we feel that lower-status group member will react to those derogatory terms with more negative emotions.

By guest host Melanie Tannenbaum, UIUC social psychology PhD candidate and Scientific American blogger (http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/psysociety)


Our own vocabulary?
In History of Psychology 

If you were to pick up the flagship journal from a discipline that is foreign to you and flip to an article at random, how much do you think you would understand? The vocabularies used by any given discipline overlap with those of many other disciplines, although the specific meaning associated with a given term may be dissimilar from discipline to discipline. Anglophone psychology, for instance, has been previously shown to share much of its vocabulary with other disciplines, especially: biology, chemistry, computing, electricity, law, linguistics, mathematics, medicine, music, pathology, philosophy, and physics. But how much of psychology’s vocabulary may
be said to be unique to itself?

John G. Benjafield of the Department of Psychology at Brock University (Canada) compared the histories of the vocabularies of psychology and the 12 disciplines listed above. Constructing databases for each of the disciplines using entries in the Oxford English Dictionary, Benjafield examined the rate of primary vs. secondary words (i.e. how often a word was used for the first time by a discipline vs. how often a word was appropriated from the vocabulary of another discipline) along with the dates of first use of these terms, and the polysemy of the vocabularies (i.e. the number of different meanings held by a given word).

So does psychology have its own vocabulary? The answer seems to be… somewhat. The majority of the vocabularies of all 13 disciplines were formed of secondary words; that is, the bulk of their vocabularies are formed of words that were first used in the English language by another discipline (often with another meaning). But, psychology was nonetheless found to have some unique characteristics with regard to
its vocabulary that you might not have expected.

First, Benjafield foundthat computing and linguistics have the highest percentage of secondary words in their vocabularies (97 per cent and 94 per cent respectively), while psychology and chemistry had the lowest rates (65 per cent and 62 per cent). In light of these results, psychology’s vocabulary may be described as being less metaphorical in nature than previously assumed (especially when compared to computing and linguistics).

Moreover, whereas the other subjects in this study showed a collective tendency over time to increasingly assign new meanings to existing words, psychology has been following the opposite pattern – over time, psychology has tended more and more to invent new words for its purposes than the other disciplines.

Finally – and surprisingly – Benjafield’s vocabulary analysis painted a picture in which psychology has been strongly influenced by the naming practices not of philosophy and physics, but of chemistry.

By Jennifer Bazar, University of Toronto.

Getting to grips with implicit bias
In Journal of Experimental Psychology

Implicit attitudes are one of the hottest topics in social psychology. Now a massive new study directly compares methods for changing them. The results are both good and bad for those who believe that some part of prejudice is our automatic, uncontrollable, reactions to different social groups.

The implicit association test (IAT) is a simple task you can complete online at Project Implicit which records the speed of your responses when sorting targets, such as white and black faces, into different categories, such as good and bad. Even people who disavow any prejudiced beliefs or feelings can have IAT scores that show they find it easier, for example, to associate white faces with goodness and black faces with badness – a so called ‘implicit bias’.

The history of implicit bias research is controversial – with arguments over what exactly an implicit bias means, how it should be measured and whether they can be changed. Now a new paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology reports the results of a competition that challenged researchers to design brief interventions aimed at changing people's implicit biases. The interventions had to be completed online, via the Project Implicit website, and take less than five minutes. Samples of 300–400 people were then randomly assigned to take each intervention, allowing a high statistical power to estimate the effect of the intervention on IAT scores.

Overall, 17 interventions were tested, and nine appeared to work, while eight had estimated effect sizes close to zero. The paper reports that interventions that focused on trying to shift the underlying attitude of the participants fared badly. Interventions such as ‘instilling a sense of common humanity’, ‘training empathetic responding’, encouraging taking the perspective of the outgroup or imagining positive interracial contact all seemed not to work.

These failures to shift IAT scores suggest that the IAT measures something that is relative stable – a real thing in our cognitive makeup, and something that can be measured in a way that can’t be as easily manipulated as self-report.

The interventions that did work included some that targeted response strategies, including a straight ‘Faking the IAT’ intervention, a practising the IAT intervention and several other priming and training interventions. That these worked is also both good and bad news. That IAT scores can be shifted by faking and training is bad news for the reliability of the measure, but there is some comfort in knowing that the successful interventions all relied on sophisticated knowledge of how the IAT worked – most participants in implicit bias studies wouldn't come up with these strategies on their own.

The big unknown is how long term any of the effects are. It could turn out that sustained change on implicit biases requires longer than five minutes intervention, but with more sustained interventions it really is possible to shift the underlying attitudes, and not just people’s response strategies.

By Tom Stafford, University of Sheffield.


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