A new study published in the Journal of Research in Personality sheds light on the personality factors associated with the tendency to interact with people outside of one’s racial background. The researchers found that White people who scored higher in emotion-focused coping and lower in emotional suppression were more likely to interact with racial minorities.
Spending time with people outside of one’s racial background has been found to reduce prejudice. However, studies consistently show that people prefer to engage with others who share their racial background — a phenomenon called racial homophily. This tendency appears to be especially strong among White people.
Study authors Laura P. Naumann and Paula Y. Ramirez wanted to see if this effect would hold when studying people’s naturally occurring social interactions rather than self-reported social interactions. They also wanted to investigate the personality characteristics that might be associated with the likelihood of engaging in cross-race interactions.
“As a personality psychologist, I know that our field relies heavily on self-report measures to study personality. I have always been interested in methodologies that capture more concrete or objectives forms of behavior,” explained Naumann, an associate professor of psychology at Nevada State College
Naumann and Ramirez equipped 115 college students with wearable camera technology that captured their social interactions over the course of a weekend. Most (80%) of the participants were women, 41% were Latinx/Hispanic American, 29% were White, 15% were Asian/Asian American, 9% were multi-racial, and 7% were Black American. The small cameras took intermittent photographs of a participant’s environment from the first-person view, capturing an average of 1,937 photos per participant.
“Small wearable cameras allowed us to capture participants’ real-life behaviors in a relatively unobtrusive way which we could then connect to participants’ self-reported personalities,” Naumann told PsyPost. “This methodology was particularly helpful to study the amount of cross-race interactions people engage in because past research has shown that people typically respond in socially desirable ways (i.e., reporting more cross-race interactions or friendships than is true.)”
At the end of the weekend, the subjects turned in the cameras and completed several questionnaires that assessed personality factors including emotion regulation, coping styles, and personality traits.
Research assistants coded the photographs and counted how many social interactions each participant had and whether each interaction was with a White person or a person belonging to a racial minority. These observations revealed that, among White participants, around 70% of their interaction partners were other White people, and only 30% of their interactions were with cross-race partners. Among racial minority participants, around 76% of their interaction partners belonged to a racial minority, and only 24% were White.
Next, the researchers found that certain personality characteristics appeared to affect the likelihood of engaging in cross-race interactions. Among White participants, having greater emotional stability, higher emotion-focused coping, and lower emotional suppression was significantly related to more cross-race interactions. As Naumann and Ramirez point out, previous studies suggest that White people experience increased stress and anxiety when interacting with individuals outside their racial background and may engage in compensation strategies as a result, such as suppressing their emotions.
“Replicating past research, both White and racial minority participants were captured engaging in fewer cross-race interactions. However, certain personality traits correlated with being captured engaging in more cross-race interactions,” Naumann said.
“Specifically, White participants who were more comfortable expressing their emotions (low in suppression) or talking through their emotions with others (high in emotion-focused coping) were more likely to be captured engaging in interactions with other racial minorities. Ultimately, being willing to disclose details about one’s self or being able to be emotional vulnerability are important in building closeness in any relationship, but may be especially important for building trust with a member of a racial or ethnic minority group.”
The study authors acknowledge that their findings are limited, since physical appearance was used to categorize the race of the participants’ interaction partners.
“Although our coders showed strong agreement in their racial categorizations of interaction partners, we could strengthen the design by having participants identify characteristics of their interaction partners, including race and relationship type. We’d also like to increase our sample size and ensure we have good representation of all racial/ethnic groups,” Naumann explained.
Among racial minority participants, those who scored higher in the personality trait of openness to experience were more likely to have White interaction partners. But this relationship was not statistically significant.
“Although some racial minority participants were captured engaging in more interactions with Whites, we could not attribute these personality differences,” Naumann said. “One possibility is that because racial minorities are often the numerical minority in many settings, they are required to engage with Whites more frequently as a matter of their daily lives and this acts to weaken the influence of any personality and individual differences that might otherwise predict greater cross-race interactions with Whites.”
Still, the results replicate previous findings by revealing a strong preference for interacting with others who share one’s ethnic background, at least among White people.
The study, “Caught on camera: Cross-race interactions captured in daily life”, was authored by Laura P. Naumann and Paula Y. Ramirez.