The Stroop Effect was originally just a language effect: we’re slower identifying the color text is printed in when the words themselves name different colors. In the 81 years since the effect was first observed, it’s been applied to a variety of very different phenomena. In general, the effect is explained by automatic processing: when a process is automatic, it conflicts with the desired goal and so slows processing. In fact, the Stroop Effect is so robust that researchers now use it to determine if a process is indeed automatic.
Much research has focused on the issue of whether racial bias is automatic, but a team led by Jerzy Karylowski wanted to know if racial categorization itself is automatic, so they turned to the Stroop task. Would you be slower to identify the color a person’s name is printed in if it conflicts with their race, regardless of your racial bias?
The researchers created 288 different slides displaying the name of one of 24 well-known public figures. Half of the people named were white, and half were black. Each name was displayed in white, black, green, or blue, and displayed on a background corresonding to each of the other colors — a total of 12 different displays for each name. 94 participants viewed the slides on a computer screen, and their task was the standard Stroop task: name the color each name was displayed in, as quickly as possible. Here are the results:
The green and blue text had no effect on reaction times, but participants consistently responded slower to white text when the person named in the text was black, and slower to black text when the person named was white. You can try it out for yourself with this graphic: go through the lists below, naming the colors instead of reading the text.
Did you have an easier time with the second list? If so, you’re not alone.
Immediately after the experiment, the researchers also asked participants to try to recall as many as possible of the people named over the course of the experiment. Considering the fact that each of the 24 names appeared 12 times, you might expect a relatively high accuracy rate — but in fact, participants on average could only recall 30 percent of the names. So race appears to be encoded even more rapidly and automatically than the names themselves.
Just as it is difficult to stop ourselves from reading words, even when our only job is to say what color they’re printed in, so we also appear to involuntarily place people racial categories in the same circumstances. This process is so automatic that interferes with our ability to do the primary task.
Karylowski et al. offer an important caveat to their work: they point out that racial categorization is not “universal” or “natural.” After all, racial categories themselves can change depending on social and historical context. As races become more mixed, who’s to say where one race begins and another ends?
Karylowski, J.J, Motes, M.A., Curry, D., & Van Liempd, D. (2002). “In what font color is Bill Cosby’s name written?”: Automatic racial categorization in a Stroop task. North American Journal of Psychology, 4(1), 1-12.