UCA psychologist finds connection between racial stereotypes and perceptions of risk-takers

James Wages

James Wages is an assistant professor of psychology at UCA.

University of Central Arkansas Assistant Professor James Wages has found that perceptions of risk-takers as reckless or responsible are often based on racial stereotypes. His research was recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

Wages has always been interested in how people think about others and how those thoughts can lead to judgment and inaccurate stereotypes. The seeds that grew into his research on risk-taking started when he was in graduate school. 

“I was reading about the significant disparity in HIV rates between Black men and white men and wondered what could be causing it,” Wages said. “When I looked into the evidence, there was nothing to say the two groups differed in terms of risk-taking behavior. The disparity could be explained by access to quality health care and the type of sexual networks. Black men tend to have less access to care and more restrictive sexual networks – meaning the virus can spread more easily.” 

Wages then searched for literature that looked into whether or not there were documented stereotypes about how different groups engaged in risk-taking behavior. He didn’t find anything. 

Wages’ research is the first known attempt to investigate how people make social sense of risk-takers, particularly concerning race. Because stereotypes are often negative and not something people are willing to discuss, Wages and his team had to design their research in a way that would draw out the truth. They did five methodologically diverse experiments to learn how people perceive responsible and reckless risk-takers and if race was a factor. The total sample size was 1,600 American citizens. Most of them were white. 

In the first study, Wages had participants rate several facial images of Black and white men. The men were very similar in every aspect except for skin color. 

“We had them rate how risk-taking they thought the person would be. They had to go through each image and give their answer. In the end, we compared the ratings and found participants were willing to say the Black facial images were more risk-taking than the white.” 

In the second study, Wages took a different angle and focused specifically on the types of risk: reckless or responsible. 

“We described the reckless as people who take chances to get what they want and don’t think much about the consequences. For the responsible, we said they take chances to get what they want, but they put in a lot of thought and deliberation about it first.”

Once participants chose the profile (reckless or responsible), researchers showed them 99 different character traits (friendly, assertive, impulsive, ambitious, etc.) and asked, “Which of these traits best represent this person?” The researchers had a different group rate how stereotypically white or how stereotypically Black the traits were. 

“We took their selections and found that the traits they selected for the reckless risk-taker were substantially more stereotypically Black than the ones they picked for the responsible risk-taker.”

In the third study, researchers asked one sample of participants to visualize how a reckless risk-taker looks. They asked the other sample to imagine how a responsible risk-taker looks. They showed participants many random, fuzzy images to choose from and match the traits. Researchers then took all the participants’ selections and made composite images of the reckless and responsible risk-taker. 

“The images that they imagined for the responsible risk-taker looked more phenotypically white. The reckless one looked more phenotypically Black. So in that study, I found some evidence that what people are imagining seems to be racialized for these two different risk-taker types,” Wages said. 

The fourth study involved an economic investing game, using the reckless and the responsible risk-taker composites as potential recipients. 

“We asked them to invest it in one of these two people, and if you make the right decision, you could potentially triple your endowment. But if you make the wrong decision you may lose it all. The participants were able to allot the money however they wanted.”

This experiment found participants were more willing to trust the responsible risk-taker over the reckless one. 

“We didn’t give any other really rational information to make that decision; they made their choices purely based on the way they looked.” 

In the fifth study, Wages wanted to see what would happen if you took away the negative connotations of the stereotypes. So he and his team created fake Twitter profiles of two users: one who indicated the user was a reckless risk-taker in the bio and the other conveying the user was a responsible risk-taker. There were no indicators in the profiles of their race.

“We then had each of the profiles post tweets that seemed stereotypical but not negative,” Wage said. “Again we found the participants associated the reckless risk-taker image with the tweets that were stereotypically Black and the responsible risk-taker image to the ones that were stereotypically white. That gave us more confidence that the reckless risk and responsible risk concepts overlap with racial stereotypes and the association not simply confounded with negativity.” 

Wages’ research shines a light on the social conceptions of risk-taking and how such concepts might be biased with racial stereotypes. His experiments found a consistent pattern that mental representations of risk-takers evoke racial connotations. 

“These findings may have implications for contexts in which the perception of risk-taking is common and consequential, as when decisions are made in healthcare, financial lending, and the criminal justice system,” Wages said. “For example, when deciding whether to prescribe a risky medical treatment, lend a mortgage at a reasonable rate, or sentence a convict harshly, we should all take a step back and examine whether such decisions could potentially be biased by these racial stereotypes of riskiness.” Finally, Wages suggests that further work is needed to determine how prevalent and impactful such stereotypes are, what their origins are, and how to combat them.