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Frictions between different racial and ethnic groups are a tale as old as time; World War II saw the wrongful American internment of Japanese-Americans, and more recently tensions are again rising – sometimes violently – between US police and African-Americans. But why are we cursed to forever seek conflict with our neighbours? Largely, at fault is lack of race-based trust – or rather, race-based mistrust. This mistrust is rooted in human social categorization: people differentiate others into different social groups. Creating ingroups and outgroups, we differentiate between each group by making group boundaries based on perceived characteristics. In turn, group membership grants one social identity, a sense of belonging. Due to human tendency to perceive ourselves, and thus our own ingroups, in a positive light, people tend to treat ingroup members more positively than outgroup members – we call this ingroup positivity bias. Trust is defined as the degree of positivity – how laudable, hopeful or good – one expects of another’s intention and behaviour. In intergroup contexts such as those of racial conflicts, intergroup trust is low because of the low positivity received and expressed between ingroup and outgroup members.
In the face of social phenomena, it is also instinctual for people to perform amateur science to form reasons for them. These flawed explanations, or lay theories, are a person’s belief if specific attributes, like race, are tied to malleable characteristics and assuming the associations are simple social constructions versus fixed characteristics and assuming the associations are essential to persons belonging to that domain. Everyone has cognitive availability to both beliefs; the level of accessibility in a given individual or situation dictates the accessed belief. This accessibility of beliefs is individually different, depending on many factors like one’s developmental experiences, social structure and culture, and the belief’s capacity to explain an observed pattern of things. One’s lay theory of race is influential in perceptions and attitudes of others, and likely plays a vital role in the shaping of intergroup trust. As a result, cooperation is then catalyzed between groups and constructiveness in conflict resolutions.
Kung et al. (2018) conducted a study aiming to improve intergroup situations by attempting to establish a relationship between lay theory of race and intergroup trust. They hypothesized that versus essentialist beliefs, social constructionist beliefs about race can increase trust toward racial outgroups in intergroup contexts based on two arguments. First, people who endorse these beliefs are associated with lower tendency to racially categorize people because of their perception that racial boundaries are malleable. The ingroup bias and weaker willingness to bestow positivity toward outgroup members we had seen before is undone by these endorsers’ more positive attitude toward intergroup interactions, resulting in better ability to extend intergroup trust. Second, these endorsers had been associated with stronger motivation to connect with outgroups; this is a known precursor to trust, as relationships are built only if the other person is felt to be trusted.
The study is organized into three experiments testing for their hypothesis in intergroup versus intragroup contexts and interracial/multiethnic versus same-race contexts. The first experiment investigated the association between lay theory of race and trust towards people of different-race versus same-race in a team conflict scenario. 60 Hong Kong Chinese undergraduate business students participated for course credit. Participants filled out a survey that measured their lay theories of race, as well as personality and intelligence for control purposes. After, they were to read and imagine a case competition conflict scenario where their partner, either also Hong Kong Chinese or Filipino, is in disagreement with the participant’s favoured idea. Finally, partner trust ratings and demographic info is asked to be provided. The second experiment was set up to measure cooperation as a behavioural outcome for trust, because trust is a known prerequisite for cooperation, in a decision-making game with and without experimental manipulation of lay theory. 97 Hong Kong Chinese undergraduate business students participated for course credit. Participants were first randomly assigned to read and summarize a false scientific news article that provided real arguments for social constructionist or essentialist beliefs about race. Their summaries were used to check for successful manipulation of lay theory via the reading’s arguments. Then, participants were invited to play a decision-making computer game with an unknowingly fake partner in an adjacent room – the partner’s actions merely pre-programmed responses. To increase engagement and deepen impressions, participants were first asked to swap personal profiles with their Hong Kong Chinese or Filipino partner. The game itself involves multiple rounds of decisions to either choosing to cooperate or defect, where the participant is rewarded most to defect when the partner chooses to cooperate but least to defect when the partner also defects.
The goal had been declared to be to earn the most individual points. As an experimental control, the virtual partner always chose to cooperate. Post-game trust was then rated. The final experiment aimed to test the hypothesis further in a face-to-face negotiation with partners of same and different race. The relationship between two people is called a dyad, and dyadic trust is a precursor to mutually beneficial settlements, also known as joint gains. It was predicted that dyads with stronger social constructionist beliefs would have more dyadic trust in interracial negotiations, which would lead to better negotiation joint gains. 230 undergraduate business Hong Kong Chinese and Asian and White international students were recruited as participants for course credit. Participants completed a survey for lay theory and demographic info. A few weeks later, they participated in a negotiation simulation in Hong Kong Chinese dyads and Hong Kong Chinese-international dyads. The simulation resembled a merger plan negotiation between two companies. Four rounds were played, with partners having to cooperatively choose one out of five options to resolve an issue; these options granted different amounts of individual points depending on their respective company agenda.
The goal was again declared to be to gain the most individual points. At the end of the game, partners gave trust ratings and joint gains were calculated after trust-reporting to avoid the influence of joint gain results on dyadic trust. Across the three experiments – in varying situations – evidence was found that the hypothesis was correct: compared to essentialist beliefs, social constructionist beliefs on race promoted interracial trust in intergroup contexts. In particular, it was found that lay theory of race’s effects are mediated by interracial trust, which is then predicted to result in higher cooperation and joint gains in negotiation in intergroup settings. Lay theory of race had also been revealed to be able to reliably influence interracial trust, regardless of: whether lay theory of race was naturally measured or manipulated; whether individual differences in other lay theories were controlled for; and specific racial or ethnic compositions in interracial conflict. Together, these findings provide optimism and direction toward further understanding of interracial relations – and a more harmonious communion between all the painted children of mankind.
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