Can television characters transmit racial attitudes without even saying anything?
Characters on television shows can transmit subtle cues that perpetuate racial stereotypes among viewers, new research suggests.
To explore the presence of nonverbal racial bias on television, the Tufts University study showed edited clips from 11 popular shows to participants who were unfamiliar with these programs. The television shows used in the study included House, Bones, Reno 911!, CSI, CSI: Miami and Heroes.
The clips were edited to remove both African-American and Caucasian major characters, showing only the other characters in a given scene.
The researchers chose characters of similar status within each show to remove from the scenes. The sound was also taken out of the clips.
In the first part of the study, led by psychologist Max Weisbuch, participants were shown the edited clips and asked to rate how the unseen characters were treated in each scene.
Weisbuch says that presenting such a sequence is a standard method of investigating nonverbal behavior. Furthermore, while a photo of a person smiling at another person indicates a favorable response, that reaction alone doesn't tell the whole story.
"Instead, it's the whole body that communicates positive or negative treatment," he said.
To control for non-racial attributes that could affect how characters are treated, like attractiveness and intelligence, researchers asked a panel of undergraduate judges who regularly watch the shows selected for the study to rate such attributes in each unseen character.
The researchers also controlled for verbal reactions by characters that were shown. Using transcripts of each scene, the team asked a separate panel to rate the exchanges as being favorable or unfavorable to the unseen characters.
These results were factored into the responses of the participants from the experimental group.
With both controls in place, the Tufts researchers found that the unseen black characters were treated less favorably with nonverbal language than the unseen white characters in nine of the 11 television shows surveyed. These findings suggest that racial biases appear nonverbally among characters.
The study was published in the December 18 edition of the journal Science.
The Tufts study also demonstrated that these nonverbal biases have a direct impact on viewers' own prejudices. A series of clips that were judged either pro-white or pro-black were shown to two different groups, each watching only one of the two series.
Immediately following the viewing, participants took an implicit association test (IAT), an established tool used to uncover latent racial biases. The higher the IAT score, the more favorably the respondent views whites and the less favorably he or she views blacks.
The group that watched the pro-white clips showed significantly more favorable bias toward whites than the group that watched the pro-black clips.
Because of their subtle nature, nonverbal biases can be more difficult to address than overt racial biases. "We did find that nonverbal biases were difficult for our participants to consciously identify, and yet these biases were influential," Weisbuch told Discovery News. "So in that respect it might be hard, though not impossible, to prevent their influence."
Dr. Martin Remland, a specialist in nonverbal communication at West Chester University of Pennsylvania who is unrelated to the Tufts study, says that what we communicate without speech can often underscore our true feelings.
"Nonverbal cues are 'honest signals' because much of this communication is automatic and non-conscious," Remland said. "We have much less control over the messages we send with facial expressions, body movements and tone of voice."
Josh Clark is a writer for HowStuffWorks.com.