Friday, November 21, 2003

How Could I Have Missed This?

From The Economist:

OF COURSE, it is good to be polite. And, as a result, in most places these days it is impossible to know what someone is actually thinking when he meets or works with someone of another race. Politeness makes it unacceptable to express prejudice, even if those attitudes are actually there. How hard do people work to overcome a prejudice that they feel but are not allowed to express? That is the question Jennifer Richeson, of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, attempts to answer in this month's Nature Neuroscience.

Another report of the research also appears in The Sydney Morning Herald (plus the Taipei Times and the Glasgow Daily Record.

Of all the reports, The Economist is the least sensational, describing the actual experiment in some detail. Leaving aside the slightly sensational headlines elsewhere, which raise the spectre of using brain-scans to detect socially unacceptable attitudes, what Richeson found is that putting a lot of work into keeping up a polite conversation with someone whom you might detest for no good reason is so taxing to the brain that it impairs performance on subsequent tests of cognitive performance.

The finding hasn't gone uncontested but, if future experiments in this area produce similar results, it would bear out the common-sense belief that generally, bigots are pretty stupid. The only question remaining to be answered is whether people are bigots because they are stupid, or vice versa; Dr Richeson's results seem to indicate the latter.

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