How we appear to others is a pressing matter for most people. We are social beings, and how well we fit with our social partners often determines how well we can lead satisfactory lives and achieve our goals.
Prior research has shown that we form impressions about one another on two primary dimensions. The first dimension is one of warmth or morality. This refers to “’other- serving’ traits related to benevolence, sociability, morality, and deference.” If a person has these traits, we tend to respond by liking them. The second dimension is competence. If a person appears competent to us, we tend to respect them.
So, let’s flip the script. When making an impression, if we want to be liked, then we want to appear as “warm” and “moral.” We can do this by ingratiating ourselves to the other person. In other words, we act in a way to elicit liking by the other. But, if we want to be respected, then we try to appear competent. We can do this by using self-promotional behaviors such as detailing our accomplishments and our capabilities.
All this has been backed up by research. The question at hand is when do people prefer to be liked versus respected, and does race have anything to do with it?
Normally people of all racial backgrounds in the US aspire to be both liked and respected. But the researchers speculated that when white people interact with black and Latinx people, each group might favor one goal over the other. The reason is the nature of prevailing racial stereotypes. Whites, as the high status racial group, are stereotyped as intelligent and competent, whereas blacks and Latinxs are stereotyped as unintelligent and less competent. On the other hand, whites are characterized as racist, more so than blacks and Latinxs.
People are widely aware of these stereotypes. In a mixed-race pairing of whites with either blacks or Latinxs, whites are at risk of “being perceived as prejudiced, biased, unfair, and closed- minded.” One might then expect white people to focus on making an appearance of being warm or moral. Correspondingly, blacks and Latinxs are at risk of being perceived as unintelligent and incompetent. They might be expected to make an appearance of being competent. By doing so, then whites might elicit liking by their partners, and blacks and Latinxs might elicit respect.
The researchers designed a series of studies to test this.
White, black and Latinx students were asked to imagine an interaction with another person, either with an assigned roommate for the next year, or a partner on a classroom project for a semester. Half the white students were asked to imagine the interaction with another white student. The other half were asked to imagine the interaction with a black student. In a similar way, half the black and Latinx students were asked to imagine an interaction with a partner of their same race, and half were to imagine an interaction with a white partner
After taking several minutes of guided imagining (“What do you think your interactions might be like? What kinds of expectations or concerns might you have…), the students were asked to indicate whether it was most important to them to be liked or respected. Students imagining an interaction with same-race partners “did not differ in their preference for respect versus liking.” This was true of all students. But when white students and black and Latin X students imagined an interracial interaction, the students of color “reported a stronger preference for respect over liking … relative to” the white students.
In a follow-up study, researchers used the same approach, but asked ““If you had to choose between being seen as competent and being seen as moral by this person, which would you regard as more important?” The results were in line with the initial study. In imagined same-race pairings, all students showed an equal preference for being seen as competent and moral. But, “In imagined interracial interactions, however, [students of color] reported a stronger preference for appearing competent rather than moral … relative to Whites.”
The researchers wanted to see if the results held up when looking at actual relationships. As before, they used a group of white, black and Latinx students. Half the students were asked to identify a friend of the same race as them. The other half were asked to identify a friend of a different race. Then the “friends” were contacted and several also took part in the study.
Each person answered several questions, some of which related to how important it was for them to be seen as competent (intelligent, capable, competent) and moral and likeable (fair, kind, open-minded, a good person) by their friend. They also were asked how long they knew their friend.\
As expected, “In interracial relationships, the goals of Whites and minorities diverged…, with Whites reporting a stronger preference for appearing moral as opposed to competent … than did minorities. In same-race relationships, goals did not differ between Whites … and minorities.”
There was a wrinkle in the findings. They held up for friends in new relationships, but with friends who had known each other over a longer period of time, the goals of the white student and the student of color did not differ.
In the first two studies the researchers used “pencil and paper” tests. In this study they wanted to see if actual behaviors also reflected the differences they found in impression management goals.
White students were told they would interact with a partner through the exchange of videotapes. First, they were shown a tape of their “partner” answering a discussion question while located in another room. Then the participant answered the same question as a video recording was made, allegedly for showing to his partner in turn. The tapes from the partner were actually made by black and white actors of differing genders. That way, the researchers could assure each participant saw a tape from someone of the same gender, and depending on the experimental condition, from a white person or from a black person.
Four trained people then coded the participant’s nonverbal and verbal behaviors. The coders did not know which “partner” the participant saw. They were coding for ingratiating and self-promotional behaviors, which past research has linked to the need to solicit liking or respect from one’s partner. The coders also coded for how “engaged” each participant was in this admittedly simulated interaction.
They found that white participants who were not engaged in the interaction (not actively enthusiastic, absorbed, motivated, etc.) did not show any difference in the way they acted whether in a same-race or interracial interaction. However, the more engaged white participants showed a higher level of ingratiation behaviors when paired with a black partner than they did when paired with a white partner.
Seeing that engagement level was important, the researchers gave a new set of participants an actual face-to-face discussion task. This time they worked with black students, pairing them with either a black or white partner. The interaction was recorded, and coders once again coded for ingratiation and self-promotion behavior. In same-race interactions, black participants displayed the same level of ingratiation and self-promotion, but as expected, when interacting with a white partner, they “were more likely to engage in self-promotion than ingratiation.”
In their final study the researchers wanted to see if stereotypes of competence and racist attitudes actually accounted for their findings. So, they included Asian Americans in the study. Past research has established that Asian Americans are stereotyped as competent. The researchers also theorized that Asian Americans may see whites as less racist than do blacks. So, they expected that whites and Asians, when paired, would be less likely do show different impression management goals (liking versus respect).
Once again, they formed various pairings of people of different races. Due to size and sample constraints, there was always a white participant in each pair who would then be paired with either another white participant, a black or Latinx participant, or an Asian participant. After a face to face interaction, participants were given a pencil-and-paper test to see if the participant felt it more important to be seen as competent or moral. They also asked about feelings brought up during the interaction.
The findings for white/white and white/black-or-Latinx pairs turned out the same as in prior studies. For white/Asian pairs, however, the findings did not show that whites tried to ingratiate themselves to their partner of color.
Finally, those participants who felt a greater need to appear moral (if white) or competent (if black) also indicated a higher amount of hostility toward their partner following the discussion.
The researchers clearly demonstrate that white people and people of color (or at least black and Latinx people) often have different goals for making an impression when they interact with each other. This difference in goals can cause a mismatch in expectations regarding how each person should act vis-à-vis the other. In other words, if one is trying to be liked, they may not convey a sense of respect to a person who is trying to be respected. Conversely, if one is trying to be respected, they may not convey a sense of warmth and acceptance to one who aspires to be liked. Thus, the interaction can be a challenging one, and may lead the persons involved to express dissatisfaction with their partner.
Knowing that this dynamic is present can help the racial justice and equity practitioner manage the type of impression they make when interacting with people not of their own race, and possibly sidestep a dynamic that would otherwise prove damaging to effective communication.
Bergsieker, H. B., Shelton, J. N., & Richeson, J. A. (2010). To be liked versus respected: Divergent goals in interracial interactions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(2), 248–264. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0018474