He Said What? Physiological and Cognitive Responses to Imagining and Witnessing Outgroup Racism

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Abstract

Responses to outgroup racism can have serious implications for the perpetuation of bias, yet research examining this process is rare. The present research investigated self-reported, physiological, and cognitive responses among “experiencers” who witnessed and “forecasters” who imagined a racist comment targeting an outgroup member. Although previous research indicates that experiencers self-reported less distress and chose a racist partner more often than forecasters, the present results explored the possibility that experiencers may actually be distressed in such situation but regulate their initial affective reactions. The results from Experiment 1 demonstrated that participants in both roles showed (a) no activation of the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal stress axis (decreased cortisol) and (b) activation of the sympathetic autonomic nervous system (increased skin conductance). However, experiencers but not forecasters displayed a physiological profile indicative of an orienting response (decreased heart rate and increased skin conductance) rather than a defensive response (increased heart rate and increased skin conductance). Furthermore, the results from Experiment 2 provided additional evidence that experiencers are not distressed or regulating their emotional responses. In particular, experiencers showed less cognitive impairment on a Stroop task than forecasters. Together these findings indicate that when people actually encounter outgroup bias, they respond with apathy and do not censure the racist.

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