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Confronting Racial Bias Has Surprising Motivation

The belief that others can change may cause people to speak up when they are targets of prejudice, according to new research.

This finding indicates that speaking up is more of a hopeful rather than confrontational act.

"In the broader context of race relations in American society, it's important to maintain the belief that people can change, and my research suggests that the confronting of prejudice is actually an expression of this belief," said the study's lead author, Aneeta Rattan, a doctoral student in social psychology at Stanford University.

Rattan's research examined the responses and perceptions of targets of racial or gender bias. The study subjects were all ethnic minorities and/or women. White males were not.

In the first component of the research, researchers assessed students' beliefs about personality being fixed or malleable. The students were then told they would be discussing college admissions via instant messaging with "Matt," a white sophomore. During the conversation Matt made a comment about feeling overqualified for college, "because of the whole diversity admissions thing … so many schools reserve admissions for students who don't really qualify the same way." The students then had a chance to respond, or not.

In the second study, students were given a hypothetical scenario in which a male intern questions whether a company can succeed with so many female and minority employees. They were asked to describe how they would respond. The final study established a causal link between beliefs about personality malleability and confrontation. Participants read a faux Psychology Today-type article reporting that personality could either change or was fixed.

Those who read the faux article favoring malleability were more likely to report they would confront bias than those led to believe that personality was permanent, according to Rattan

In addition to being more likely to speak up in all studies, those who believed personality is malleable were less likely to say they would withdraw from future interactions with the offender, according to the research published in July in the journal Psychological Science.

Speaking up can make a difference, too. Depending on the circumstances, both theories – that personality is fixed or that it is malleable – are true, according to Rattan. Research does suggest that when someone expresses bias and receives feedback that their statement is not appropriate, they can change their perspective.

Wynne was a reporter at The Stamford Advocate. She has interned at Discover magazine and has freelanced for The New York Times and Scientific American's web site. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Utah.