Have you ever sat next to the smelly guy? Did you ever wonder why nobody tells him that he smells, or why he can't smell himself? Doesn't he notice people getting up and changing seats when he sits down? How can he live his whole life being unaware of a flaw that is readily apparent to a total stranger 10 seconds after they've met?
Well, here's the thing: According to science, we're all the smelly guy. Figuratively, that is.
5We Are More Racist Than We Think
Here's something that doesn't make sense: On one hand, we know that racism is still a big deal (you can't argue with it -- studies show it still turns up in everything from jury decisions to hiring practices), but how many outright racists do you actually know? How many people at your office fling the blankets aside each morning and scream, "TODAY I SHALL OPPRESS A BLACK MAN!"?
Only a small one today, though. Maybe one day he'll aspire to insult Kobe Bryant's mother.
Probably not that many. So we have the seemingly impossible situation of a world with a lot of racism and not many racists (and no matter how anonymous you make the poll, you can never find significant numbers of people admitting to being racist). Science suggests it's because all of us are a little more racist than we think.
"I'm not racist; I totally love cosplay girls."
For instance, in one somewhat hilarious experiment, researchers just set up a bunch of conversations -- some between members of the same race, some between different races. Then, to liven things up, they had the conversations take place over a closed-circuit camera system and intentionally inserted awkward pauses into the conversations by adding a one-second delay. No, the participants didn't realize they were doing it.
When a white person was talking to a white person, the pauses were basically unnoticed. But in the interracial conversations, the awkward pauses caused the anxiety levels of the participants to go off the charts -- far more than in control conversations held face-to-face. No matter how nonracist and open-minded the participants thought they were, one second of awkward silence was all it took for a whole bunch of subconscious racial tensions to bubble up. "Goddamn it, I just can't connect with this person! He's different from me!"
"I can't really put my finger on why."
By the way, if you put us in the same room, we'll reflect that tension in our body language, regardless of our relationship to the other person. In another bizarre experiment, researchers showed a group some video clips of two people talking: one white guy and one guy who was obscured so the observers couldn't see what race he was. Test subjects could usually guess the race of the obscured guy just by watching the other one's body language.
The clips, by the way, were from TV shows where the characters were supposed to be equals and/or friendly with each other (that is, they weren't from cop shows where the white cop was arresting an obscured face wearing flamboyant pimp clothes). One of the shows that gave the "subconscious racist" response was Scrubs, for Christ's sake. These are real-life friends and colleagues playing the role of fake friends and colleagues. But put black and white together in the room, and on a subconscious level, things change.
Our funny on-screen bromance is just overcompensating for our acute racial tension!
Finally, and maybe strangest of all, is an experiment in which they gathered a random group of people -- not taken from a Klan rally or anything -- and made them watch an excruciating video of a guy's hand having a needle slooowly driven into the skin.
That involuntary wince you just did is happily a universal human response.
As you can imagine, the subjects literally felt the pain in their own hands ... as long as the hand on the screen was of the same race. The result was the same for the white and black participants -- they couldn't feel as much empathy for a member of another race.
And if you're about to say, "That's not racism! That's an involuntary response based on the fact that the hand being injured just didn't look like their own!" Hey, that's what the researchers thought, too, so they also included a purple hand. Subjects felt empathy toward it just fine. That's right -- the subjects couldn't muster empathy for a fellow human of another race but cringed at the thought of somebody hurting a fucking Night Elf.