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EASP – European Association of Social Psychology

EASP Seedcorn Grant Report by Julia Vogt

19.10.2018, by Tina Keil in grant report

University of Reading, UK; Project: "The Racist’s Eye: Investigating Attentional Bias to Arab Faces in Threatening and Non-Threatening Contexts"

SEA lab members
SEA lab members

In recent years, there has been an increase in Islamophobia, with perceptions of Muslims in general being negatively affected by incidents, allegedly carried out by Muslim extremist groups, such as the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in New York and Washington, and those carried out in the past months and weeks in Europe (Ogan et al. 2014). Models of prejudice and stereotyping have identified early attention allocation towards outgroup members as a key factor in understanding these processes (e.g. Correll et al., 2016) since only attended information shapes subsequent cognitive, affective, and behavioural responses. In the present project, I aimed to investigate whether non-Muslim observers are hypervigilant towards people perceived as Muslim and whether such an attentional bias is dependent on or enhanced in threatening contexts.

In order to address these questions, I have conducted three experiments investigating (1) attention to Arab and White faces in the absence of threat; (2) the impact of threat-related versus threat-unrelated goals on attention to Arab and White faces; and (3) the impact of threat-related versus threat-unrelated locations on the allocation of spatial attention to Arab in comparison to Caucasian faces.

In experiment one, we aimed to see whether there is an attentional bias to towards Arab in contrast to White faces in the absence of any threat-related context in order to have a reference point. In the experiment, 80 White British participants were presented with Arab and White faces in an attention task. We also measured (explicit) prejudice towards Muslim and White people. We did not observe an attentional bias to Arab (or White faces), nor did prejudice towards Muslims relate to attentional bias. However, observers that reported more positive attitudes towards White British people displayed more attention allocation towards Arab faces than White faces. This suggests that preference for the ingroup causes hypervigilance towards outgroup members that are associated with threat.

In experiment two, we investigated the effects of threat-related versus threat-unrelated goals on attention. By this, we wanted to test whether inducing a goal to look out for danger creates a bias to Arab faces whereas activating a positive goal prevents racial attentional bias. To this end, we combined the attention task with a secondary, separate task that required 120 participants to indicate the presence of either angry, happy, or all kind of faces. This task served to induce a motivation to scan the environment for potentially dangerous or happy people; trials of this task were performed in alternation with trials of the attention task. We found that pursuing a parallel goal of detecting angry faces enhances race bias towards angry Arab faces in comparison to angry White faces. Race race bias was absent in the happy goal and neutral condition similar to what we found in Experiment 1. This could indicate that people become hypervigilant towards angry and thus threat-related Arab faces when looking for danger.

In experiment three, fear conditioning was used to associate specific locations on the screen with threat or safety. To this end, 59 participants learned in a parallel task that the presentation of a neutral stimulus in a specific location on the screen (e.g. the left half of the screen) can be followed by an aversive noise. We then measured attention towards neutral Arab and White faces presented in these locations. This experiment allowed us to test whether Arab/ Muslim faces become salient in threatening locations but will be ‘overlooked’ in locations with positive associations. We are currently still analysing the data in more detail but at first glance it seems that effects are limited to the safety-related location. Specifically, we found that observers holding very positive associations towards White people seem to have an attentional preference for White faces in locations associated with safety. This could indicate that ingroups become salient when looking for ways to cope with threat and are thus considered to be resource (cf. Correll & Park, 2006).

In sum, with the generous help of EASP, we were able to conduct all experiments that were outlined in the grant proposal and one additional experiment (Experiment 1). Therefore, the grant has allowed me to extend my research line on interactions between attention, prejudice, and threat-related contexts to prejudice towards Muslims and Arabs. The data of these three studies will help me to refine this line of research and hopefully also result in successful larger grant applications and/ or manuscripts. Finally, the grant helped me to refine my theorizing and experimental approaches for my broader research program on interactions between attention, emotion, and various social variables.