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Eye on Psi Chi: Fall 2017

Anxiety and Interracial Dialogue With Keith Maddox, PhD

Bradley Cannon, Psi Chi Writer/Journal Managing Editor
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How are people affected by apparent acts of discrimination? According to Dr. Keith Maddox, this all depends upon the nature of the discrimination. There could be material outcomes such as the loss of a job, promotion, or loan. Psychologically, he says, discrimination might result in the perception that you may not be able to accomplish the same things in society that others can. “In other words,” he explains, “you may feel restricted or limited, which could figure into the development of your self-concept with respect to what you think you’re good at and what you’re not good at.”
Dr. Maddox, who is African American, grew up in the suburbs of Detroit in southeastern Michigan. Due in part to this setting, he says his speaking and clothing style are different than that which people stereotypically associate with urban Blacks. “That often led to very different ways in which people would interact with me as opposed to Blacks who came from more urban settings. I noticed, very early on, that I was in a weird place—sort of a middle ground between a suburban White world and an urban Black world.”
Because of the unique vantage point that this created, Dr. Maddox has always been interested in issues of racial stereotyping, prejudice, discrimination, and the ways in which people use categories about other people to make judgments about them. His first social psychology course gave him a framework for thinking about these issues, and he has continued studying them ever since. After earning his MA and PhD in social psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, he is now an associate professor of psychology at Tufts University (MA) and the Director of the Tufts University Social Cognition Lab.
Other Effects of Discrimination?
Sharing some of what he has learned in today’s interview, Dr. Maddox adds, “The psychological effects of acts of discrimination could also depend on whether you perceive that the different treatment you’re getting is due to discrimination. If you don’t think your treatment is based on discrimination, then another attribution is that it is based on you and your own personal characteristics. In that case, if you don’t get a job, it is because you weren’t good enough for it. Or if you weren’t able to secure a loan, it is because your credit wasn’t good enough. Making those kinds of personal attributions to yourself and your shortcomings has implications for how you think and feel about yourself, and the likelihood that you’ll take steps to address perceived shortcomings. However, attributing that treatment to discrimination suggests that the problem lies outside of your own abilities, and is a result of bias.”
Discrimination not only limits opportunities for people, but also has a broader impact on society. As Dr. Maddox puts it: “In general, discrimination is bad in the sense that it prevents those who have useful skills and abilities from being able to contribute to society. This hurts everyone because we lose the benefit of working in diverse groups of people. We all have different skills, talents, and viewpoints. With a relatively diverse group, you have a wider range of skills and talents to take advantage of for the task at hand.”
Why Might Someone  Avoid Interracial Contact?
The general focus of Dr. Maddox’s recent research has been identifying situations where people, particularly Whites, have anxiety about how they may come across to others with respect to race issues. Furthermore, he seeks to alleviate that anxiety so that people can “get over” some of the barriers that lead to more negative outcomes from interracial dialogue such as discrimination. He says, “There are a lot of reasons in addition to anxiety that might lead people to avoid these kinds of conversations.
For example, people might not see that the topic is important because they think racial bias isn’t a significant problem. Or, they might dislike their dialogue partners due to their political ideology, their religious background, and so forth. But again, the focus of our research is on the role of anxiety.” For the most part, Dr. Maddox’s research of this phenomenon involves well-meaning people who understand that there may be a significant race problem in our society. He says, “These people may not necessarily agree with the extent of the problem, but they are looking for opportunities to get more information. For these people, engaging in conversation and dialogue with somebody of a different group could give them a new perspective and some of the information that they seek.”
Unfortunately, at the same time, these individuals do not always engage in interracial contact because they are anxious about those interactions. For White people, Dr. Maddox believes that this anxiety has to do with saying something that might make them appear racist or biased in some way. And for Blacks and people of minority groups, he says, they may feel anxiety that they might do something that would make them be perceived through the lens of a negative stereotype.
Results of Encouraging Interracial Contact?
In Dr. Maddox’s research, one strategy that seems to have been successful involves framing conversations in a way that acknowledges that an interactor might feel anxiety. As he has learned, this can encourage people to make a choice to engage in interracial interaction, particularly in interactions where people talk about race.
He explains, “The kind of framing that we used was basically to put anxiety ‘on the table’ by saying, ‘Look, this is an anxiety-provoking situation, so you may be anxious that the person you’re going to speak with will have some attitudes about you based on your race. But engaging in these discussions with people of a different background can help in the long run.’ We then gave participants the opportunity to choose a Black or White partner. And we found that White participants were then more likely to choose to interact with a Black partner compared to a White partner.”
Have Perspectives of  Race Issues Changed  in Recent Years?
“I am not sure I would say that perspectives have changed, but I think that maybe our understanding of them has,” Dr. Maddox says. “I think that people have gotten a sense that things have changed for the better regarding social justice for racial minorities, gays and lesbians, transgender individuals, and women. And, in fact, these improvements extend beyond just talk into real action. However, this last presidential election cycle also showed us that there has always been an undercurrent of resentment around some of the policies and laws designed to achieve social justice.”
“We can now see these kinds of attitudes because Donald Trump tapped into them during the election campaign. He appealed to a concern held by some that people of racial and ethnic minorities have been receiving undeserved attention and advantages over the last few years due to the Obama administration’s focus on policies, laws, and rhetoric around social justice. This last election cycle has sort of enabled us to look ‘under the rug’ at the nature of these kinds of beliefs and attitudes that many of us thought were fading.” There were obviously huge ramifications in terms of the outcome of the election. However, Dr. Maddox and others who are interested in social justice issues try to also see this as an opportunity to think a little more about the nature of the kinds of overlooked problems and how to address them going forward.
What’s Next for  Dr. Maddox’s Lab?
A lot of the upcoming work in the lab ultimately aims at “getting people in productive conversations about social justice issues, particularly about race and ethnicity, where they have impact on individual outcomes or group outcomes in society.” Here are four specifics:
  • To understand more about the extent to which anxiety affects people’s willingness to engage in interracial interactions and judgements, and how to alleviate it. “One possible way,” Dr. Maddox explains, “is through deprecating humor that points directly to race relations or issues of social justice in a way that satirically pokes fun at politically stigmatized groups. We want to learn more about the ironic ways in which this type of humor can help us address anxiety and simultaneously encourage interracial dialogue.”
  • To understand why majority group members who confront bias (aka allies) also face some barriers that come from members of the group that they are trying to help. Some evidence, he says, has shown that these allies get backlash as well. There is a need to understand that process better in order to think about ways in which allies can become emboldened and empowered to speak up, particularly when they are concerned about how a minority group that they are trying to defend will perceive them.
  • To understand more about the ways in which developing higher levels of empathy can help get people to engage in interracial sorts of dialogue. “There is something called the interracial gap, where people tend to have a difficult time feeling empathy or reporting empathy for people who belong to different groups. We want to find out what contributes to that gap and how we can lessen it.”
  • To understand how people mentally use physical characteristics to place other people into particular groups. For example, he says, “We are interested in how people’s race, gender, and social roles might intersect to impact the ways in which we think about people and the implications this might have.”
Moving Forward, Together
Civil rights legislation needed to happen way sooner than it did, Dr. Maddox says. “But what we are dealing with now to some extent is a backlash from the civil rights era and the second, more recent push by the Obama administration that tried to focus more on rights for LGBT individuals, minorities with respects to immigration, and transgender individuals. When you couple those changes with the economic challenges that individuals spoke up about in the Rust Belt in the Midwest, it led to a lot of backlash toward the Obama administration and its policies.”
“A part of me thinks that I don’t know exactly what could have been different, but one thing that might have helped is if the policies that were implemented had received a little more bipartisan support.” Dr. Maddox admits that this might not have been achievable because, sometimes, the only way to get something done is through legislation first, hoping that attitudes follow along. “But more bipartisan support might have insulated these policies from the backlash that led to the strong support for Donald Trump, who advocated directly and indirectly against policies designed to support members of stigmatized minorities and women.”
Although bringing together democrats and republicans sometimes seems like an impossible task, increasing interracial discussion may be the key. Dr. Maddox says, “The ultimate goals are that we (a) encourage more interracial dialogue to grow the number of people involved in thinking about these kinds of issues and (b) develop policies that will be lasting in the sense that they won’t be perceived as being pushed on by one group onto the other.”
A Question for You,  Dear Reader
When asked how his research has influenced him personally, Dr. Maddox says, “That’s really kind of a ‘chicken and egg’ problem. I’m not sure if I’m influencing the research, or if the research is influencing me. Probably a little bit of both. But I can say that I’m moving in the direction of trying to find more direct relationships between what I do in the lab and how it can impact the ‘real world.’ ”
Reader, what about you? Are you willing to put any anxiety “on the table” and then make an effort at the next opportunity to engage in interracial interactions of your own? If so, will the interactions provide you with new perspectives and opinions, or might you provide new perspectives and possibilities to the growing group of people dedicated to equality for all?
SIDEBAR: Ask An Expert
What should you say or do if you witness an apparent act of discrimination?

First, Dr. Maddox advises you to consider the nature of the act of discrimination. He says, “One of the first things that people mention is that it depends on whether reporting the discrimination might lead to any sort of personal harm. So think about people’s physical safety first.”
Second, he reminds readers that most perceived acts of discrimination are not very “clear cut.” But in cases where discrimination has clearly taken place, he believes that it should be confronted right away. Asking readers to pardon the analogy, he says, “If you are training a cat to stay off of the table, you want to spray that cat with water while it is still on the table because cats tend to learn a little better when the negative outcome happens in the moment. I think people are similar in that regard in terms of how they learn. They have a more potential than animals for learning when the negative outcomes don’t happen right away. But I think that confronting discrimination and stopping it in its tracks is probably more effective to curb the behavior of the person committing the act.”
Third, Dr. Maddox explains that speaking out right away might also embolden the people who were the target of that discrimination because they will know that others are looking out for them. This is even more effective, he feels, “when it comes from people who we don’t expect it to come from. A lot of the time, a member of a minority group might expect other minorities to see discrimination and potentially call it out. But it can be even more powerful and impactful if a majority member calls it out because this shows that it’s not just people who look like me who have my back. A broader range of people recognize the problem and have a level of empathy to be looking out for others.”
SIDEBAR: Advice for Students
Dr. Maddox encourages students interested in a career like his to get involved in research early on. “Recognize that everything you are doing has a purpose that you are going to be able to turn toward a problem you care about in the future. So find something that catches your eye and persevere through the ‘boring stuff.’ ” For example, he says, learning basic tools and techniques early is essential to help you answer questions you are interested in later. “In the early stages of being a psychology undergraduate or early in your graduate research career, you’ll have to do research for other people based on their interests. Learn to apply what they do and how they do it to questions you want answered later in your career.”
Developing an understanding of multiple disciplines is also invaluable, he says. “Don’t only focus on one area of psychology—also develop some understanding of other areas, as well as different disciplines such as the humanities, particularly English and history. Those disciplines don’t use the same kind of tools to answer questions. However, the tools that they use can be informative. They provide perspectives that a social psychologist or other kind of social scientist can test to understand more about the mechanisms underlying human behavior.”

Keith Maddox, PhD, earned his AB in psychology from the University of Michigan, and his MA and PhD in social psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is an associate professor in the Psychology Department at Tufts University (MA) and the director of the Tufts University Social Cognition (TUSC) Lab. His research and teaching are focused on exploring social cognitive aspects of stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination. The long-range goal of this work is to further the understanding of the representation of stereotypic knowledge and its implications for the behavior and treatment of members of stereotyped groups. He has served as the special advisor to the Provost for Diversity and Inclusion at Tufts, and has founded the Applied Diversity Science Initiative at Tufts, which seeks to bring social science evidence to bear on the development and evaluation of programs designed to address the challenges and opportunities associated with diversity, climate, and inclusion in organizations.



Copyright 2017 (Vol. 22, Iss. 1) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


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