You Deplete Me

We all know someone who is difficult to manage. Someone who takes our time and energy just to get along with them. And when it’s said and done, someone who, even though we may be fond of them, leaves us tired and drained after sharing time together.

If you are white and colorblind you may be that person to your friends and colleagues of color. Researchers have compared how a colorblind frame of mind compares to a multicultural frame of mind, when one or the other is assumed by a white participant paired with a participant of color in a short term interaction.

In one study people were assigned into pairs, with one white person and one person of color in each. Before meeting each other, each participant was given a short reading. The white participant was given either an essay discussing the benefits of a colorblind approach to life (“we are all the same”) or a multicultural approach (“we each have differences”). The participant of color was given an essay on boosting health with local food. All the readings were the same length, and written with the same tone.

The essay given to the white participant is what researchers call a “prime.” It primes the participant by creating a temporary set of expectations or highlighting certain values. So, white participants were primed for either a colorblind or multicultural frame of mind while participants of color received a neutral prime.

Then they came together in pairs, and for 5 minutes discussed one of two questions. Half the pairs discussed “the state of racism in modern American society” and the other half discussed “how universities can ensure an ethnically diverse student body.”

Finally, participants were each given a simple cognitive test to see how well they were functioning intellectually. It’s a well-known finding that when people are put through a situation that demands heightened attention and cognitive processing, their mental capacity wears out, temporarily. Mental exercise leads to mental fatigue just like physical exercise leads to physical fatigue. That’s why someone can feel exhausted after a “hard day at the office” even if they did nothing more physically than sit in a chair all day.

The cognitive task consisted of being shown words, one at a time. The words were printed in different colors and the task was to name the color. To complicate things, sometimes the color of the word, and the word itself called for contradictory responses, such as the word “green” printed in yellow letters.

Participants of color from pairs where the white partner had been primed with a multicultural frame performed better than those in pairs where the white partner had been primed with a colorblind frame. In other words, the interaction with the colorblind partner demanded more, mentally, of the participants of color, who then experienced greater mental fatigue as they were taking the cognitive test shortly afterwards.

Interestingly, the researchers recorded the interactions, which were later viewed by two “ethnic minority” judges who did not know how the white participants had been primed. The white participants primed on colorblindness were, on average, judged as more prejudiced and offensive in their interactions. The researchers, using statistical techniques, found that the prejudice ratings accounted for the difference in cognitive performance by the participants of color. When the level of prejudice was controlled for, the difference in cognitive performance disappeared. In other words, the prejudice and offensiveness displayed by the white participants primed for colorblindness fully accounted for the mental fatigue experienced by the participants of color.

The study only looked at a single interaction, just a moment in time. One might imagine how, over the course of a day or a week, across many settings, and between many people, interacting with colorblind white people might deplete people of color.

SOURCE: “You deplete me: The cognitive cost of colorblindness on ethnic minorities,” by Deborah Son Holoien and J. Nicole Shelton, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 48 (2012) 562-565.