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The Little Boy Who Should’ve Vanished, but Didn’t

He was 12 years old. He was a slave. He’d had no schooling. He was too young, too unlettered, too un-European; he couldn’t have done this on his own. That’s what people said.

Picture of a drawing of an older man and a young boy facing  a vanilla plant with their backs to the viewer
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Edmond (he had no last name—slaves weren’t allowed them) had just solved a botanical mystery that had stumped the greatest botanists of his day. In the early 1800s he was a child on a remote island in the Indian Ocean, and yet, against overwhelming odds, Edmond would get credit for his discovery—and for the most surprising reasons. I want to tell you his story. So I’ll start here, with a plant.

Picture of a drawing of a vanilla plant
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

This is a vanilla plant (or my version of one). It’s a vine. It climbs, sometimes way high, and when it flowers and is visited by a pollinator, it produces a bunch of long, stringy beans. Properly treated, those beans give off the flavor we associate with vanilla.

Picture of a drawing of Anne of Austria holding a mug of hot chocolate
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

When Spanish explorers brought vanilla from Mexico, it was mixed with chocolate and became a classy sensation, fancied by kings, queens, and, pretty soon, everybody else. In his book Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Vanilla Orchid, journalist Tim Ecott reports that Anne of Austria, daughter of Philip III of Spain, drank it in hot chocolate. Madame de Pompadour, one of the great hostesses (and mistresses) of King Louis XV, flavored her soups with it.

Picture of Madame de Pompadour with a bowl of steaming soup in front of her
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Francisco Hernandez, physician to King Philip II of Spain, called it a miracle drug that could soothe the stomach, cure the bite of a venomous snake, reduce flatulence, and cause “the urine to flow admirably.”

Picture of a drawing of a man peeing
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

And, best of all, it was a sexual picker upper. Bezaar Zimmerman, a German physician, claimed in his treatise “On Experiences” (1762) that, “No fewer than 342 impotent men, by drinking vanilla decoctions, have changed into astonishing lovers of at least as many women.”

Picture of a drawing of a woman laying her head on the shoulder of a man standing next to a vanilla bottle
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Demand, naturally, shot sky high. By the late 18th century, a ton of Mexican vanilla was worth, writes Ecott, “its weight in silver.”

With profit margins growing, a few plants were hustled out of Mexico to botanical gardens in Paris and London, then on to the East Indies to see if the plant would grow in Europe or Asia.

It grew, but it wouldn’t fruit, wouldn’t produce beans. Flowers would appear, bloom for a day, fold up, and fall off. With no beans, there could be no vanilla extract, and therefore nothing to sell. The plant needed a pollinator. In Mexico a little bee did the deed. Nobody knew how the bee did it.

Picture of a drawing of a bee saying 'Shhhhh'
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

What to do? In the 1790s people knew about plant sex. Bees, they knew, were pollinators.

If people could only figure out where vanilla’s sexual parts were hiding, they could become bee substitutes.

Enter the 12-Year-Old

They kept trying. One plantation owner, Ferréol Bellier-Beaumont, on the island of Réunion halfway between India and Africa, had received a bunch of vanilla plants from the government in Paris. He’d planted them, and one, only one, held on for 22 years. It never fruited.

The story goes that one morning in 1841, Bellier-Beaumont was walking with his young African slave Edmond when they came up to a surviving vine. Edmond pointed to a part of the plant, and there, in plain view, were two packs of vanilla beans hanging from the vine. Two! That was startling. But then Edmond dropped a little bomb: This wasn’t an accident. He’d produced those fruits himself, he said, by hand-pollination.

No Way

Bellier-Beaumont didn’t believe him—not at first. It’s true that months earlier the older man had shown Edmond how to hand-pollinate a watermelon plant “by marrying the male and female parts together,” but he’d had no success with vanilla. No one had.

But after his watermelon lesson, Edmond said he’d sat with the solitary vanilla vine and looked and probed and found the part of the flower that produced pollen. He’d also found the stigma, the part that needed to be dusted. And, most important, he’d discovered that the two parts were separated by a little lid, and he’d lifted the flap and held it open with a little tool so he could rub the pollen in. You can see what Edmond did in this video:

Edmond had discovered the rostellum, the lid that many orchid plants (vanilla included) have, probably to keep the plant from fertilizing itself. Could you do it again, Bellier-Beaumont asked? And Edmond did.

This was news. Big news. Bellier-Beaumont wrote his fellow plantation owners to say Edmond had solved the mystery, then sent him from plantation to plantation to teach other slaves how to fertilize the vanilla vine.

And so the Indian Ocean vanilla industry was born.

In I841, Réunion exported no vanilla. By 1848, it was exporting 50 kilograms (.0055 tons) to France; by 1858, two tons; by 1867, 20 tons; and by 1898, 200 tons. “By then,” Tim Ecott writes, “Réunion had outstripped Mexico to become the world’s largest producer of vanilla beans.”

Picture of a drawing of a graph showing vanilla exports from Reunion
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

The planters were getting rich. What, I wondered, happened to Edmond?

Well, he was rewarded. His owner gave him his freedom. He got a last name, Albius. Plus, his former owner wrote the governor, saying he should get a cash stipend “for his role in making the vanilla industry.”

The governor didn’t answer.

Edmond left his master and moved to town, and that’s when things went sour.

He fell in with a rough crowd, somehow got involved in a jewelry heist, and was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to five years in jail. His former owner again wrote the governor.

“I appeal to your compassion in the case of a young black boy condemned to hard labor … If anyone has a right to clemency and to recognition for his achievements, then it is Edmond … It is entirely due to him that this country owes [sic] a new branch of industry—for it is he who first discovered how to manually fertilize the vanilla plant.”

Picture of a drawing that says Entirely Due to Him
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

The appeal worked. Edmond was released. But what catches my eye here is Bellier-Beaumont’s choice of “entirely.” Our new vanilla business, he says, is “entirely” due to Edmond. He’s giving the former slave full credit for his discovery and retaining none for himself. That’s rare.

Then, all of a sudden, Edmond had a rival. A famous botanist from Paris—a scholar, a high official knighted for his achievements—announced in the 1860s that he, and not the slave boy, had discovered how to fertilize vanilla.

Picture of a drawing of a man with a beard holding a vanilla plant and looking suspicious
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Jean Michel Claude Richard claimed to have hand-pollinated vanilla in Paris and then gone to Réunion in 1838 to show a small group of horticulturists how to do it. Little Edmond, he presumed, had been in the room, peeked, and then stolen the technique.

So here’s a prestigious scholar from the imperial capital asserting a claim against a 12-year-old slave from a remote foreign island. What chance did Edmond have?

Picture of a drawing of a young boy who was a slave facing off with an old scholarly French man
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

He was uneducated, without power, without a voice—but luckily, he had a friend. Once again, Edmond’s former master, Bellier-Beaumont, jumped into action, writing a letter to Réunion’s official historian declaring Edmond the true inventor. The great man from Paris, he said, was just, well, mis-remembering.

He went on to say that no one recalled Richard showing them how to fertilize orchids, but everybody remembers, four years later, Edmond teaching his technique to slaves around the island. Why would farmers invite Edmond to teach “if the process were already known?”

“I have been [Richard’s] friend for many years, and regret anything which causes him pain,” Bellier-Beaumont wrote, “but I also have my obligations to Edmond. Through old age, faulty memory, or some other cause, M. Richard now imagines that he himself discovered the secret of how to pollinate vanilla, and imagines that he taught the technique to the person who discovered it! Let us leave him to his fantasies.”

The letter was published. It’s now in the island’s official history. It survives.

Picture of an etching of Edmond Albius with the vanilla plant in his hands
Etching of more adult Edmond Albius
Etching of more adult Edmond Albius

And Yet, a Miserable End

Edmond himself never prospered from his discovery. He married, moved back to the country near Bellier-Beaumont’s plantation, and died in 1880 at age 51. A little notice appeared in the Moniteur, the local paper, a few weeks after he died. Dated Thursday, 26 August, 1880, it read: “The very man who at great profit to his colony, discovered how to pollinate vanilla flowers has died in the hospital at Sainte-Suzanne. It was a destitute and miserable end.” His long-standing request for an allowance, the obituary said, “never brought a response.”

Picture of the Edmond Albius Statue in
The statue of Edmond in Réunion
Photograph courtesy of Yvon/Flickr

But a hundred years later, the mayor of a town on Réunion decided to make amends. In 1980 or so, a statue was built to honor Edmond. Writer Tim Ecott decided to take a look. He bought a bus ticket on the island’s “Vanilla Line,” rode to the stop marked “Albius,” got off, and there, standing by himself is Edmond (in bronze or concrete? I can’t tell). He’s dressed, Ecott says, like a waiter, with a narrow bow tie and jacket. He’s not wearing shoes: Slaves weren’t allowed shoes or hats. But he’s got a street named after him, a school named after him. He has an entry on Wikipedia. He’s survived.

Picutre of a drawing of a man with a beard holding a vanilla plant and looking sad
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

And the guy who tried to erase him from history, Richard? I looked him up. He also has a Wikipedia entry. It describes his life as “marred by controversy,” mentions his claim against Edmond, and concludes that “by the end of the 20th century,” historians considered the 12-year-old boy “the true discoverer.” So despite his age, poverty, race, and status, Edmond won.

This is such a rare tale. It shouldn’t be. But it is.

Editor’s Note: This post has been updated to correctly reflect the title of Tim Ecott’s book.

Two books recount Edmond’s story. Tim Ecott’s Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Vanilla Orchid is the most thorough and original, but How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention and Discovery by Kevin Ashton tells the same tale and marvels that a slave on the far side of the world, poor and non-white, could get credit for what he’d done. There is also Ken Cameron’s Vanilla Orchids: Natural History and Cultivation, a book that contains Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten recipe for vanilla ice cream.

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[RETRACTED] Disordered environments promote stereotypes and discrimination [RETRACTED]

UPDATE: Diederik Stapel, who led this study, has been accused of fabricating data and has been suspended from his post. It is not clear which of his papers are at stake, but until further details emerge, it would probably be best to take this paper and post with a pinch of salt.

UPDATE 2: This paper has now been officially retracted. As is this post.

In February 2010, cleaners working at Dutch railway stations went on strike for several weeks. Their stations quickly fell to dirtiness and disarray, but most people didn’t mind; public support for the strike was high. But two scientists – Diederik Stapel and Siegwart Lindenberg from Tilburg University – were particularly delighted. In the growing chaos of the stations, they saw an opportunity to test an intriguing concept – that disorderly environments promote stereotypes and discrimination.

Their big idea is that stereotypes, being a set of simplified categories and judgements, can help people to cope with chaos. They are “a mental cleaning device in the face of disorder”. When our surroundings are full of chaos – be it dirt or uncertainty – we react by seeking order, structure and predictability. Stereotypes, for all their problems, satisfy that need.


To test that, the duo went to Utrecht station after it hadn’t been cleaned for a few days and asked 40 travellers to fill in a questionnaire. Their task was to say how much Dutch, Muslim and homosexual people conform to different personality traits. When the cleaners returned to work, and the station had reverted to its usual spick self, Stapel and Lindenberg repeated their experiment.


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No love for outsiders – oxytocin boosts favouritism towards our own ethnic or cultural group

Few molecules have a reputation as glowing as that of oxytocin. Often billed as the “love hormone” or “cuddle hormone”, oxytocin has been linked to virtually every positive aspect of human behaviour, including trust, social skills, empathy, generosity, cooperation, and even orgasm. And to this extensive list, we can now add racial and cultural bias.

Despite its misleading labels, oxytocin has a dark side. Just two months ago, Jennifer Bartz showed that it can make people remember their mothers as less caring and more distant if they themselves are anxious about social relationships. Carolyn H. Declerck found that oxytocin makes people more cooperative in a social game, if they had met their partner beforehand. If they played with an anonymous partner who they knew nothing about, oxytocin actually made them less cooperative. “Oxytocin does not unconditionally support trust,” she says.

Now, Carsten de Dreu from the University of Amsterdam has found that sniffs of oxytocin make us more biased towards peers from our own ethnic or cultural group, versus those from other groups. Bartz commends the new study, saying, “Along with other recent reports, [the new study] suggests that although oxytocin clearly plays a role in prosociality and empathy, the way it does this is more nuanced than previously thought. This is not entirely surprising given the complexity of human relations.”

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Racial bias weakens our ability to feel someone else’s pain

HandsYou’re watching a video of a needle piercing an anonymous hand, sinking slowly into the web between the thumb and index finger. You wince as you imagine the pain that the other person must feel, and for good reason. As you watch, you nervous system essentially duplicates the experience, responding as if you were vicariously feeling the pain yourself. This is typical of what happens when people see others in pain, but Italian scientist Alessio Avenanti has found an important exception to the rule. Racial bias can negate this ability to feel the pain of someone from a different ethnic group.


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Williams syndrome children show no racial stereotypes or social fear

People with Williams syndrome are some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. They are incredibly sociable, almost unnervingly so, and they approach strangers with the openness that most people reserve for close friends.

Their sociable streak is the result of a genetic disorder caused by the loss of around 26 genes. This missing chunk of chromosome leaves people with a distinctive elfin face, a risk of heart problems, and a characteristic lack of social fear. They don’t experience the same worries or concerns that most of us face when meeting new people. And now, Andreia Santos from the University of Heidelberg has suggested that they have an even more unique trait – they seem to lack racial bias.

Typically, children start overtly gravitating towards their own ethnic groups from the tender age of three. Groups of people from all over the globe and all sorts of cultures show these biases. Even autistic children, who can have severe difficulties with social relationships, show signs of racial stereotypes. But Santos says that the Williams syndrome kids are the first group of humans devoid of such racial bias, although, as we’ll see, not everyone agrees.

Santos compared the behaviour of 20 white children with Williams syndrome, aged 7 to 16, and 20 typical white children of similar backgrounds and mental ages. To do so, she used a test called the Preschool Racial Attitude Measure (PRAM-II), which is designed to tease out traces of gender or racial biases in young children.



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Even on mute, TV can perpetuate racial bias

Those of us who have been on the receiving end of racial abuse know all too well that words can hurt. But they’re also the tip of the iceberg. According to a study of popular US television, we’re exposed to the spectre of racial bias on a regular basis, all without a single word being uttered.

When scenes are muted, body language and facial expressions are enough to convey more negative attitudes towards black characters compared to white ones. This bias is so subtle that we’re largely unable to consciously identify it, yet so powerful that it can sway our own predispositions. In some ways, racial bias acts as a contagion and television as one of its vectors.

These nonverbal cues could have many origins. Actors could act slightly more negatively towards black colleagues, even if they have no explicit racial biases themselves. Their actions could be written into scripts or they may be directed to behave in a certain way, again without any conscious effort on the part of the writers or directors. Whatever the cause, it’s clear that audiences of millions are regularly exposed to very subtle forms of racial bias that can affect their own behaviour. 

Max Weisbuch from Tufts University showed volunteers a series of clips taken from episodes of 11 popular shows, including CSI, Grey’s Anatomy, Heroes and House, with an average weekly audience of 9 million Americans. Each show has a racially diverse cast, and Weisbuch focused on an important black character from each show. He chose his clips systematically, taking the first scene where the chosen black character interacted with a white one of roughly equal status within the first, middle and last 5 minute bursts of each episode. Matching for status is important – it obviates the fact that black characters are sometimes less prominent or important to a show. 

Weisbuch cut the audio and the featured character from each clip, leaving behind just the reactions of their conversational partner. Each altered clip was shown to 23 white students who had never seen any of the 11 shows. Without any clues from tone of voice or choice of words, the students judged that responses to unseen white characters were significantly more positive than those to unseen black characters.


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How light or dark is Barack Obama’s skin? Depends on your political stance…

In the early days of the last US elections, Hillary Clinton’s campaign was accused of deliberately darkening Barack Obama’s skin in a TV ad. The implication was that by highlighting Obama’s “blackness”, Clinton’s camp was trying to exploit negative associations that voters might have with darker skin. But you don’t need editing software to do that – a fascinating new study suggest that people literally change the way they see a mixed-race politician, depending on whether the candidate represents their own political views.

Liberal American students tend to think that lighter photos of Barack Obama are more typical of him, while conservatives think he’s best represented by darker photos. You can see this effect even after adjusting for any racial prejudices, be they hidden or overt, and even with a person less famous than Obama. And regardless of political views, people who associated Obama with lightened photos were most likely to vote for him.

Eugene Caruso from the University of Chicago, who led the study, thinks that this effect is the result of two biases: the positive associations of white and lightness among some Western cultures; and the tendency to view people of the same group (political or otherwise) more favourably than those of another group. He says, “Group membership provides a lens through which people generate representations of reality.”

Caruso asked 221 students about their political ideologies and then showed them three photos of Obama and three of John McCain. On the grounds that some photos can capture the “true essence” of a politician better than others, the students were asked to rate how well each photo represented each man. But unbeknownst to them, two of each set of pictures had been altered with Photoshop, so that the subject’s skin tone was either lighter or darker.

When it came to McCain, the students’ political leanings had no bearing on their choice of photos. For Obama, it was a different matter – liberal students were more likely to pick the lightened photo as the one that represented him best. Conservative students were more than twice as likely to associate him with the darkened photo. These biases were reflected in the students’ votes. Whether liberal or conservative, the more people associated Obama with the lightened photo, the more they were likely to vote for him.

Of course, this effect could simply be down to racism – people who harbour prejudices against Blacks would be more likely to associate Obama with a darker photo and less likely to vote for him. But Caruso accounted for that – he repeated the experiment with 49 people a week before the last election and specifically evaluated the recruits’ attitudes on race.

Each of them filled in a questionnaire called the Attitudes Toward Blacks scale, which asked them whether they agreed with statements such as “Generally, Blacks are not as smart as Whites.” Obviously, people can lie on these questionnaires, so each volunteer also did an “implicit association test” (IAT), designed to reveal any hidden prejudices (try one here).

The same patterns emerged as before and this time, Caruso found that they remained even after adjusting for racial attitudes, both hidden and explicit. A week after the election, Caruso caught up with his recruits and confirmed that those who thought the lightened photos represented Obama were actually more likely to have voted for him. Those who linked him to the darkened photo were more likely to have voted for McCain. Amazingly, the photo effect turned out to be a better indicator of voting choice than the scores on either of the two prejudice tests.

Barack Obama’s fame is perhaps a bit of a distractor since people can judge him on his policies, personality and more than just his skin colour. But Caruso found the same effect using a non-celebrity.  He asked 102 students about their views on important educational issues and then showed them three photos of a man allegedly running for a position in the US Department of Education. He told them that the mystery politician either agreed or disagreed with most of their stances.

But Caruso kept two important things from the recruits. First, the ‘politician’ was actually Jarome Iginla, a mixed-race ice hockey player whose father was a Black Nigerian and whose mother was a White American. None of the students twigged to this. Secondly, as before, some of the photos had been doctored so that Iginla’s skin tone was either lighter or darker.

The same trend emerged. Caruso found that students who were told that the politician supported their views were more than twice as likely to pick the lightened photo as the most representative one. Those who thought that Iginla disagreed with them were more likely to associate him with the darkened photo.  And across the board, people who picked the lightened photo were most likely to vote for him. 

Across all three experiments, the way that American students literally see a mixed-race politician depends on whether they agree with his views. If they felt aligned with a candidate, they tended to mentally lighten his skin, and Caruso suggests that this might reflect subconscious associations of white with good, and black with bad. Sadly, the study provides no information about the ethnicity of the students involved – it would be very interesting to see if the same bias in perception applies to viewers who are themselves Black.

Reference: PNAS  doi:10.1073/pnas.0905362106

More on politics:


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Predicting ethnic violence – why good neighbours need good fences

This article is reposted from the old WordPress incarnation of Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Everybody, apparently, needs good neighbours, but in many parts of the world, your neighbours can be your worst enemy. In the past century, more than 100 million people have lost their lives to violent conflicts. Most of these were fought between groups of people living physically side by side, but separated by culture or ethnicity.

Good fences make good neighboursNow, May Lim and colleagues from the New England Complex Systems Institute have developed a mathematical model that can predict where such conflicts by looking at how different groups are spread out in a given area.

According to their research, violence is most likely to erupt in areas with poorly-defined boundaries between large and culturally different groups. Their model predicted areas of ethnic violence in both India and Yugoslavia with uncanny accuracy, and Lim hopes that it will help policymakers to look at the problem of violent conflicts with a scientific eye.

Many studies on the triggers of violence have focused on familiar issues such as historical grudges, competition over resources or religious differences. But Lim approached the problem from a new and different angle.

She tested the idea that the issues that different cultural and ethnic groups fight over are secondary to the way those groups are spread out geographically. In her vision, violence is most likely to erupt when the boundaries between these groups is poorly defined. These hazy boundaries create local hotspots of tension, which can be easily pushed into violent conflict because of other social and economic factors.


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Do baby faces benefit black business leaders?

A common problem afflicting modern psychology is that it’s mainly based on experiments with middle-class white people, often from North America or Europe. Open up the field of inquiry to other cultures, social circles or ethnic groups and different trends come to the fore.

Take the effects of a baby-face. Decades of studies have found that rounded, smooth, young-looking faces engender trust and sympathy. People adorned with such youthful looks tend to be treated with more sensitivity and patience, receive more lenient sentences, and make better spokespeople during PR crises. But these disarming faces come at a price – they’re also associated with weakness and incompetence, which can harm those striving for positions of authority. Indeed, previous studies have shown that baby faces are rare among the highest echelons of business.

But these studies have only ever been done in white men. Robert Livingston and Nicholas Pearce found that the opposite is true for black men. Baby faces are more common among black chief executive officers (CEOs) than their white peers. Not only that, but there was some suggestion that men with such faces tend to command larger salaries and lead more powerful corporations than those with sterner countenances.

Black people in the US face more obstacles in their path to top than their white counterparts do. In addition to proving their diligence, skill and competence, they must fight against prejudices and stereotypes of black people as less intelligent or even threatening. Livingston and Pearce suggest that far from being a hindrance, a disarming face actually helps black men by cancelling out the stereotypes that might otherwise weight down their social climb.


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Simple writing exercise helps break vicious cycle that holds back black students

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchIn American high schools, black students typically perform worse than their white peers, which can damage their self-esteem and their future prospects. Studies have found that the fear of living up to this underachieving stereotype can cause so much stress that a child’s performance suffers. Their teachers may even write them off as lost causes, and spend less time on them.

Blackschoolchildren.jpgWith so many students caught in this vicious cycle, where the stereotype of poor performance strengthens itself, it might seem absurd to suggest that you could turn things round in less than an hour. But try telling that to Geoffrey Cohen from the University of Colorado.

In 2007, he showed that a simple 15-minute writing exercise at the start of a school year could boost the grades of black students by the end of the semester. The assignment was designed to boost the student’s sense of self-worth, and in doing so, it helped to narrow the typical performance gap that would normally separate them from white students. Now, Cohen returns with a new report of the same experiment two years on.

Things are still looking good. Even though two years have passed, the students are still feeling the benefits of those precious exercises. With the help of a couple of booster sessions, they still felt more confident about their chances of success, their grade point averages had increased (particularly among the weakest students), and the proportion who had to repeat a grade was two-thirds lower.

Cohen originally asked a group of white and black seventh-graders to write about a topic that they felt was important – from having good friends, to sense of humour, to musical ability – and why it mattered to them. The idea was to encourage the students to affirm their own abilities and their integrity, as a sort of psychological vaccine against the negative effects of stereotypes. As a control, a second group of students had to write about something they felt was not important, and why it mattered to someone else. Teachers, incidentally, were never told which student was completing which assignment and they were largely kept in the dark about the exercises and the aims of the experiments.


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They don’t all look the same – could better facial discrimination lead to less racial discrimination?

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchIt’s been a big week. With a simple words, Barack Obama became the first black President of a country whose history has been so haunted by the spectre of racial prejudice. His election and inauguration are undoubtedly proud moments but they must not breed complacency. Things may be changing outwardly, but problems remain.

For a start, it goes without saying that many people, even the most liberal and left-wing among us, still harbour unconscious prejudices against members of other races. These “implicit biases” may be hidden, but their effects are often not. For example, a study published last year showed that unconscious biases can hold greater sway over a person’s voting decisions than their conscious, rational preferences.

Their influence becomes apparent even when we simply look at people of other races. It’s a well-known fact that people generally find it more difficult  to distinguish between the faces of people from other ethnic groups than those of their own. This so-called “other-race effect” is the phenomenon behind claims that “they all look the same”. But looks are in the eye of the beholder and the other-race effect can be negated through experience with members of different races. For example, African infants who are adopted by white families develop a bias in distinguishing between faces that matches those of white children.

Sophie Lebrecht from Brown University sensed a link between poorer facial discrimination and greater racial discrimination. Her idea is simple: if someone finds it hard to tell the difference between people of a certain race, they will be more likely to characterise that entire group with broad stereotypes. When the lines between individuals blur, generalities start seeping in and implicit biases have a stronger influence. But if that’s the case, there may be a way around it – indeed, Lebrecht found that by training people to better discriminate between faces of other races, she could help to reduce their biased attitudes towards those races.


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People overestimate their reactions to racism

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchPicture the scene – you sit in a room with two other people, one white and one black, waiting for a psychological test. As the black person leaves to use their mobile phone, they bump the knee of the white person on their way out. While they’re gone, the white person turns to you and says, “Typical, I hate it when black people do that.” How would you feel? Would you be shocked? Angry? Indifferent? And would you want to work with that person later?

800px-Yes_it_does.jpgThis was the scenario that Kerry Kawakami from York University used to try and understand the state of race relations in 21st century America. Kawakami found that people are very bad at predicting their responses to racism. They may claim to shun hypothetical racists or be upset by their actions but when confronted by such people and events in reality, their predictions turn out to be dramatic overestimates of their actual feelings. This discrepancy may help to explain why racism is such a widely condemned but remarkably prevalent part of modern society.

Kawakami recruited 120 volunteers of various races (apart from black), sat each one in a room with two actors – one white, one black – and watched as the white student reacted to having their knee bumped. In some trials, they said nothing; in others, they said, “Typical, I hate it when black people do that,” and in the most extreme cases, they said, “Clumsy nigger.” When the black partner returned, all three were asked to fill in a survey about their current state of mind and the real volunteer was asked to pick one of the other two to help them complete a word task.

Only half of the volunteers – the “experiencer” group – actually sat through these events. The other half – the “forecasters” – were only told about it and asked to put themselves in the shoes of an experiencer. Kawakimi found that their forecasts of their feelings and reactions bore little resemblance to the way the experiencers actually behaved.

Expectedly, forecasters said that they would be very upset by either racist slur. In reality, the experiencers were largely indifferent, and those who heard negative remarks were actually no more distressed than those whose partners hadn’t said anything at all. Likewise, only about 10-20% of the forecasters said that they would choose the white person as their partner over the black one but a much higher 63% of the experiencers actually did so. If anything, they were more likely to pick their white associate if they made a racist slur than if they said nothing.



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Social status shapes racial identity

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchWe tend to think of race as a fixed part of our identity, a trait that is set at the moment of conception and stays unchanged for our entire lives. But a new study shows just how fluid our conceptions of race can be.

The-Wire.jpg By following a group of people over almost two decades, Andrew Penner and Aliya Saperstein from the University of California, Irvine found that the way people identify themselves racially, and the way others define them, change over time and are coloured by social status. Their study strongly argues that race is as much a flexible indicator of our social standing as it is a reflection of our biology.

Penner and Saperstein used data from a study called the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which began in 1979 by interviewing a group of about 12,000 Americans aged 14 to 22. The sample were followed once a year until 1993 and every two years thereafter. Every time, the interviewers classified each person as “White”, “Black” or “Other” and in both 1979 and 2002, the people themselves were asked to describe their “origin or descent” or which “race or races they considered themselves to be”.

The results were surprising, especially for a country like the US, which apparently has very rigid racial boundaries. Over the 19 years of the survey, the race of about one in five people had changed at least once in the eyes of their interviewers.


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Westerners focus on the eyes, East Asians on the nose

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchWhen you look at someone’s face, what part do you concentrate on? Common wisdom has it that the eyes are the focal point of the face and they are the features that draw attention first. But according to a new study, that may not be universally true – while Western cultures do fixate on the eyes, East Asians tend to focus on the nose.

We owe a lot of our knowledge about the way we look at images to a Russian psychologist Alfred Yarbus. He was the first scientist to carefully record the subtle eye movements that people make when they take in a view. Yarbus’s experiments showed that our gaze rapidly flicks back and forth across an image so that our centre of vision focused on the most important parts. For example, while surfing websites, our eyes tend to focus on headings, words at the top of the page and words on the left.

The same thing happens when we look at faces. Previous studies have found that viewers tend to flick their gaze between the eyes and the mouth – an inverted triangle of important features. Some psychologists have taken this to mean that humans have a single, universal and innate strategy for processing faces. But this conclusion has a big snag – it’s only really based on experiments done with Western populations.

To get a more cross-cultural perspective, Caroline Blais and colleagues at the University of Glasgow tracked the eye movements of fourteen white Western students and fourteen East Asians, eight of whom were Chinese and six of whom were Japanese. The East Asian volunteers were all students who had recently enrolled in the university and had never been to a Western country before.