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EASP – European Association of Social Psychology

EASP Seedcorn Grant Report by Chuma Owuamalam

04.11.2015, by Kai Sassenberg in grant report

University of Nottingham, Malaysia Campus, Malaysia; Testing the Neural Bases of Judgments and Experience of Emotions when Social Status Matters

I would like to thank EASP for the Seedcorn grant which supported the current adventure into the ‘uncertain’ world of social neuroscience. I must emphasise, though, that I had little expertise in this area prior to this grant, and it has been especially delightful (and humbling) to have the opportunity to learn and grow in this rapidly evolving area.

So what did I aim to accomplish in this pilot research? My research aimed to examine the neural foundations for people’s judgements about the emotional states of members of high and low status groups. Why is it important? Well, the judgements people make about the emotional state of others can have important consequences on how they interact with, or react to the individuals expressing them. If you thought I was especially happy when writing this grant report (as I should be!), then this might correspondingly encourage an engagement with my report, whereas the opposite detrimental reaction may result if signs of negative emotions were apparent.

But why is it relevant in the context of social groups? Unlike the evidence on this report that could signal specific emotions expressed by the author, it may be difficult, at the group level, to objectively evaluate the emotional state of every single group member. Hence, people may rely on ‘sentimental stereotypes’ (Tiedens et al., 2000) as heuristics for inferring the emotional state of members of social groups - which may or may not be accurate. If emotional judgements are, at times, inaccurate (e.g., incorrectly ‘expecting’ that a member of a certain group will be angry or act-out their anger) then this can have profound negative consequences for the stereotyped (e.g., the recent fatal police shootings of an unarmed Black youth in Fergusson Missouri, USA). I therefore focused, in the current investigation, on judgements of anger and calm expressions of members of low and high status groups. The question is: would lay perceivers associate members of low status groups more with anger and less with calm compared to their high status counterparts? Do these associations, if they exist, have unique neural signatures?

We proposed the existence of a hunchback stereotype: that lay perceivers generally associate members of low status groups with greater expressivity of anger and less calm compared to their higher status counterparts. We believe such an association arises from the presumed frustration that members of low status groups face relative to their higher status counterparts. Thus, unlike the infrahumanisation theory that suggests a tendency for people to attribute bestial non-uniquely human emotions (e.g., anger) to all outgroups relative to the ingroup (Leyens et al., 2000), the hunchback stereotype assumes that people differentiate outgroups in terms of social status in their attribution of anger. No other study has examined the existence of the hunchback stereotype. The few that have examined anger attributions have largely focused on race (Blacks vs. Whites) and the generality of the patterns they show to other inter-status contexts is often unclear. Previous studies have also not examined the attribution of the other key hunchback emotion of calm – even though these two emotions are distinct. Importantly, indirect evidence from previous investigations of inter-status anger judgements is often mixed. Some suggest that people expect members of high status groups to express anger more than their lower status counterparts (Tiedens et al., 2000), while other studies using a representative sample drawn from the same population as Tiedens et al. (2000) show the opposite trend (e.g., Park et al., 2013). My students and I thought it likely, therefore, that the mixed evidence so far has arisen because the foci have often been on (a) retrospective accounts of emotional expressivity that may be vulnerable to mis-recollection (e.g., in Park et al., 2013), or (b) self-reported judgments of emotional states of members of high and low status groups by third parties that may be susceptible to demand characteristics. To address these concerns, I stretched the Seedcorn grant to complete two experiments using a cognition probe paradigm, and one Event-Related Potential (ERP) experiment that builds on and extends the first two. I describe each of these experiments below.

Experiment 1

We originally proposed to carry out only an ERP study (i.e. the third experiment). However, a recent upgrade to our EEG equipment presented unforeseen soft and hardware challenges and this delayed data collection on our neuro-imaging study. This delay proved useful. We decided then to take small steps before venturing into the uncertain world of ERPs! We started with a replication of the indirect evidence for the existence of a hunchback stereotype, using a cognition probe task (CPT) that was similar to the implicit association task (IAT: Greenwald et al., 1998). Like the classic IAT, the CPT uses response time data to infer association strength – faster response time implies a stronger and more automatic association between the attributes being examined (anger/calm) and the categories presented (high status/low status). If the hunchback stereotype exists, then one should expect faster reaction latencies when the attribute (anger vs. calm) and category (exemplars of Blacks and Whites) pairing was hunchback-congruent, i.e. anger/Black, calm/White, compared to when the pairing was hunchback-incongruent i.e. anger/White, calm/Black. Results yielded some evidence for the hunchback stereotype in relation to anger association, but not to calm. Ah…! we thought, this could be because anger was more salient in this Black vs. White context which then trumped the emergence of a corresponding hunchback pattern for the calm trials.

Experiment 2

We addressed the potentially confounding impact of hyper-salience of the aggression stereotype for Blacks in Experiment 1 by relying in the current study on the social class distinctions within a single ethnic group in Malaysia (Malaysian Indians). This time we found evidence for a hunchback stereotype on both the anger and calm trials. Explicit self-report measures in both Experiments 1 and 2 in which participants were asked about whether or not low status targets (e.g., large people, Black people, South Indians) express anger/calm more/less relative to their higher status counterparts (e.g., thin people, Whites, and Northern Indians) corroborated results from the implicit CPT measure. Neuro-imaging experiments are costly in terms of time, expenses related to consumables and compensation paid to participants. It was a relief, therefore, that we had some concrete data on which our ERP studies could rely.

Experiment 3

This study, which is currently ongoing, uses electroencephalography techniques (EEG) to explore the neural experience of participants performing a forced-choice decision task designed to tap into hunchback stereotype associations. Members of low-status groups (e.g. Blacks) are often associated with aggressive, anger-evoking music genres (Reyna et al., 2009) – a behavioural manifestation of the hunchback stereotype. Therefore, in the forced-choice decision task participants are asked to decide if a target presented on-screen would purchase either an aggressive sounding music, or a calm sounding one. To eliminate the potentially confounding effect of music genre that are associated to Blacks (rap music) or Whites (classical music) we created aggressive-sounding and calm-sounding versions of an oriental beat – quangin. We reasoned that participants would react faster to images of Blacks that are paired with aggressive-sounding tunes and images of Whites that are paired with calm-sounding tunes (hunchback consistent). Conversely, they should react slower to images of Blacks paired with calm-sounding tunes and images of Whites paired with aggressivesounding tunes (hunchback inconsistent). We expect, therefore, that specific ERPs associated with facial judgements, such as the N170 and VPP, should be amplified in the hunchback inconsistent condition compared to the hunchback consistent condition.

In terms of impact, my students and I have presented the outcome of completed experiments at the convention of the Society for Australasian Social Psychologists in Newcastle, Australia (April, 2015). Our paper was well received and we got valuable feedback which is informing the design of followup studies. We plan to present the outcome of Experiment 3 at the joint convention of Developmental and Social Psychology sections of the British Psychological Society (September, 2015). Experiments 1 and 2 are written-up and currently under review. The hunchback stereotype features routinely in my special optional module on the ‘Self and Intergroup Processes’ and my students thoroughly enjoy it! The support we received from the Seedcorn grant provided an opportunity for some of these students to gain hands-on experience developing materials for our experiments over the summer. In short, I have gained valued experience as principal investigator on the grant, which I believe will prove useful if a follow-up grant proposal that I will be submitting to the Malaysian Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MoSTi) is successful.

Again thanks to EASP for making all this possible – my students and I should be occupied for a long while trying to tease out the nuances of the phenomenon we have chosen to call the hunchback stereotype. Of course I am very grateful to the super-efficient Sibylle Classen for all her assistance in the process – thank you!


  • Greenwald, A. G., McGhee, D. E., & Schwartz, J. L. (1998). Measuring individual differences in implicit cognition: the implicit association test. Journal of personality and social psychology,74(6), 1464.
  • Leyens, J. P., Paladino, P. M., Rodriguez-Torres, R., Vaes, J., Demoulin, S., Rodriguez-Perez, A., & Gaunt, R. (2000). The emotional side of prejudice: The attribution of secondary emotions to ingroups and outgroups. Personality and Social Psychology Review,4(2), 186-197.
  • Park, J., Kitayama, S., Markus, H. R., Coe, C. L., Miyamoto, Y., Karasawa, M., Curhan, K. B., Love, G. D., Kawakami, N., Morozink Boylan, J., & Ryff, C. D. (2013). Social status and anger expression: The cultural moderation hypothesis. Emotion,13(6), 1122.
  • Reyna, C., Brandt, M., & Viki, G. T. (2009). Blame it on hip-hop: Anti-rap attitudes as a proxy for prejudice. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 12(3), 361-380.
  • Tiedens, L. Z., Ellsworth, P. C., & Mesquita, B. (2000). Sentimental stereotypes: Emotional expectations for high-and low-status group members. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26(5), 560-575.