Despite historical opposition to interracial unions in the United States, new research casts doubt on claims that interracial couples elicit feelings of disgust. The study, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, indicates that the link between interracial romance and disgust only for exists for some people and only under certain conditions.
“After having read a paper suggesting that people see interracial couples as disgusting, one of my graduate students (and another student who later dropped out of the project) asked if we might follow this study up and test the proposed relationship more directly,” said lead author Sean Laurent, an assistant professor at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and head of the Morality and Social Cognition Lab.
“Specifically, our interest was in testing whether there was, as hypothesized, a link between disgust and interracial couples. We thought conducting this work was particularly important not only for theoretical reasons but because of potential societal impacts. And as a child of an interracial couple, the work was also interesting on a personal level.”
But why are researchers interested in disgust in particular? “Given that the social function of disgust is to protect oneself and one’s group from danger, interracial unions may symbolically represent contamination of in-group values,” Laurent and his colleague explained.
In their the study, 210 participants completed an anonymous online survey in which they viewed images of couples and reported how disgusted they felt after view each image. To mask the intention of the study, the survey also asked the participants to report a variety of other emotional responses as well.
The researchers found that disgust ratings for White/Black couples tended to be higher than disgust ratings for Black couples or White couples. But disgust ratings were low across the board, with most participants responding they felt no disgust at all towards interracial or same-race couples.
“There may be some association between disgust and interracial couples, but when asked directly, very few people indicated any disgust toward any couple type, and overall, average disgust toward interracial couples was quite low. Thus, ‘less not disgusted’ might be a more appropriate conclusion than ‘more disgusted,’” Laurent explained.
In a second study, the researchers examined 96 undergraduate psychology students using a rapid image identification task. The participants were shown images of disgusting stimuli, neutral stimuli, or couples for a very brief duration (40 milliseconds) and were asked to “guess” whether or not the images were disgusting.
The researchers observed a subliminal bias against both Black couples and interracial couples, but only among participants who had scored high on a measure of disgust sensitivity.
In a third study, the researchers had 98 undergraduate psychology complete another image-based task related to disgust.
The participants were shown two images presented side-by-side, with a green arrow pointing toward the target image. They classified the target image as disgusting or not by pressing a button as quickly as possible.
The researchers found that participants were slower to indicate that interracial couples were not disgusting when paired with neutral stimuli, compared to when White couples were paired with neutral stimuli. However, “no difference between interracial and Black couples was observed on this indirect measure of association, and when couples were presented alongside disgusting images, people tended to respond similarly to all couple types,” the researchers explained.
“It was not entirely clear from two other studies we conducted using less direct methodologies that the disgust association is unique to interracial couples. That is, no significant differences between Black and interracial couples were found in these studies,” Laurent told PsyPost. “Finally, our work showed that any association that exists might only exist for people who are particularly sensitive to disgust cues.”
“Given our findings, I think that more studies with larger and more diverse groups of participants are needed before any firm conclusions can be drawn. Moreover, the word ‘interracial’ can mean more than couples with one Black and one White partner (e.g., Asian/White couples), not all couples are heterosexuals’, and this association may not exist in all cultures,” he continued.
“To broadly generalize that ‘interracial couples’ are associated with disgust requires testing more couple types, recruiting large and diverse participants in samples, testing this idea in multiple cultural locations, and being careful to highlight not only the statistical significance of any associations found, but the size of these effects. However, even small effects can have huge impacts.”
The new findings are in line with public opinion polling, which has indicated a sharp decline in opposition to interracial marriage. A Gallup poll conducted in 2013 found that 11% of Americans disapproved of marriages between Blacks and Whites, compared to 94% who disapproved in 1958.
“Rather than finding large and robust effects, I think our work is actually a little more hopeful,” Laurent said. “In the past, I think there may well have been a much stronger link between disgust and interracial romance, but as the world grows more interconnected and people continue to be exposed to a greater number of couple types than they might ordinarily see in their regular lives. I expect that this association will continue getting smaller. With any luck, one day it will disappear completely and people will see couples as people in love, and nothing else.”
The study, “Disgust Toward Interracial Couples: Mixed Feelings About Black–White Race Mixing“, was authored by Shoko Watanabe and Sean M. Laurent.