The Price of Words Unspoken

From Science:

Words_2 Humans are hard-wired to notice race. The average person registers the race of another human face in less than 100 milliseconds, according to past studies. This instantaneous perception clashes sharply with the American cultural taboo against using race to identify someone. Watch people at a party trying to describe another person, says Michael Norton, a marketing researcher at Harvard Business School. “They’ll launch into these long explanations until someone in the group might eventually say, ‘Oh, you mean the Asian guy?'” To measure the impact of such verbal gymnastics on cognition, Norton, Sommers, and colleagues employed a modified version of the children’s game “Guess Who?” Cards depicting people of different genders and races are laid face-up on a table, and one player mentally selects a card. The second player has to figure out as quickly as possible which card the first player picked using as few yes-or-no questions as possible, such as “Is your person blonde?”

Past studies have suggested that children internalize social taboos about discussing race at about age 10. The researchers compared the performances of 51 kids that were 8 to 9 years old with a similarly sized group of 10- to 11-year-olds. Both groups were equally composed of girls and boys, and the participants were predominantly white. In this game, asking about race was perfectly legitimate, because it could help the child pick the target card faster, Sommers says. Whereas almost 77% of the younger children asked about race, only 37% of the older children did. Consequently, the younger group guessed the target card after an average of 7.4 questions, but the older students averaged 8.3 questions, the team reports online this week in Developmental Psychology.

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