Not actually angry: Black children and boys are more likely to get misjudged

© 2020 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Race and gender biases can make us perceive anger where none exists. They also lead many adults to perceive Black children as less "childlike" -- less innocent and vulnerable.  How many "behavior problems" are caused by adults getting it wrong?

Picture this.

You are sitting in a laboratory, in front of a computer screen, watching a series of short video clips.

Each video clip shows a child -- age 9-13 -- displaying an emotional facial expression.

It's your job to decide which emotion the child is depicting.

Happiness? Sadness? Fear? Surprise? Disgust? Anger?

Immediately after a clip ends, you're asked to click on the most fitting label.

Example: Happy facial expressions featured in video clips (from Halberstadt et al 2020)

Altogether, you view a total of 72 children -- male and female, Black and White. And researchers have ensured that each possible combination (gender x race x emotion) is depicted by three different individuals. For example,  at various points, you see anger displayed by

  • 3 different Black girls;
  • 3 different Black boys;
  • 3 different White girls; and
  • 3 different White boys.

Researchers mark you for accuracy, and (although some of the facial expressions are subtle) there's no question about what the correct answers are.

The researchers made these video clips to order. They asked child actors to display the specific emotions in question. Moreover, the researchers tested their video clips on people trained to decode facial expressions. The obtained expert agreement that each video clip is an appropriate representation of the designated emotion.

So. The remaining question is: How often did you identify the correct emotion? And did your accuracy vary depending on the sex or race of each  child?

Amy G. Halberstadt and her colleagues performed this experiment on a group of 178 adults attending college in the Southeastern United States.

Most of these participants were women (89%), and the ethnic composition was predominantly White (White 70%; Hispanic 9%, Asian 8%, Black 6%, Biracial 5%, Native American 1%, Middle Eastern 1%). All of them were enrolled in education programs. They planned to become school teachers.

And what happened?

These teachers-in-training, as a group, showed clear trends in their abilities to accurately identify the emotions of children. They had the least trouble with White girls, and performed a bit worse with Black girls. Next best was their ability to accurately judge the emotions of Black boys. And their worst performance? Trying to identify the emotions of White boys.

The ranking of white boys surprised Halberstadt's team, and this study provides no clear answers about it. But previous research indicates that teachers tend to pay closer attention to the behavior of Black boys. So maybe that was a factor here. People made more errors with White boys because they scrutinized them less.

But in any case, keep in mind: These results describe people's performance across all of the emotions tested, including happiness, sadness, and fear.

What if we focus on outcomes related to just one of the emotions -- anger? The emotion that is most likely to spark conflict, disapproval, and even punishment?

Overall, study participants were usually pretty accurate in their judgments of anger. But they made mistakes -- seeing anger where it didn't exist -- about 7% of the time. And when they made these mistakes, they followed these trends:

  • Boys -- regardless of race -- were more likely than girls to be mistakenly judged as angry.
  • Black children were more likely than White kids to be mistakenly judged as angry.
  • Black boys were the most likely to be mistakenly judged as angry.

You can observe these trends in the figure below (from the researchers' paper). It compares the odds of being misidentified as angry by gender and race.

Odds of misattributing anger by actor race and actor gender, **< p.01; ***< 0.001; Copyright Halberstadt et al 2020

As you can see, the difference between Black boys and White boys wasn't huge, but it was statistically significant.  The odds were 1.16 times higher that people would mistakenly attribute anger to Black, rather than White, boys.

The difference between Black girls and White girls was more dramatic. People had 1.74 times the odds of mistakenly attributing anger to black, as opposed to white, girls.

Why the bigger race gap among girls?

People tend to be more accurate in their judgments when they are evaluating individuals who share their own race and gender, and most of the adults participating in this study were White females.

Moreover, as you can see from the figure, White girls were much less likely to be misinterpreted than were kids in other groups.

So at least part of the gap may reflect the "in-group" advantage that some White women had in evaluating the emotions of White girls.

But that probably doesn't account for it all.

As Halberstadt notes in an interview for Education Week, Black adults were just as likely as White adults to mistakenly attribute anger to Black students (Will 2020).

It seems likely, then, that additional factors are at play. There are plenty of stereotypes in the popular culture -- stereotypes that depict Black people as angry or aggressive. Such stereotypes influence our unconscious thinking processes, and shape our immediate perceptions.

What about individual differences in belief? Were the adults in this study more likely to misperceive anger in Black children if they endorsed racially-biased views?

To find out, researchers asked participants if they agreed or disagreed with statements like these:

  • "Black students don’t study very much."
  • "Black students are more emotional than White students."

Surprisingly, people's answers had little apparent impact on the accuracy of their judgments about Black children's feelings of anger.

People were equally likely to misattribute anger to Black kids, whether or not they harbored an anti-Black bias.

But race-biased beliefs did affect how people responded to White kids.  People with greater anti-Black biases were less likely to misperceive White kids as angry.

In other words, says Halberstadt, "…the more biased prospective teachers were, the more likely those prospective teachers were to give white children the benefit of the doubt" (Shipman 2020).

What else have experiments shown?

People are also more likely to misattribute anger to Black adults. They tend to associate Black males with threatening imagery. They are less likely to recognize Black boys as childlike, and more likely to underestimate the extent to which Black individuals feel pain.

This study of children's facial expressions wasn't the first to report an anger bias against Black individuals.

Previous studies have shown that Black adults -- making neutral or ambiguous facial expressions -- are also at greater risk of being misperceived as angry (Hugenberg and Bodenhausen 2003; Halberstadt et al 2018). And researchers have documented other false perceptions.

Using a technique called implicit bias testing, investigators have confirmed that people make links -- often unconsciously -- between Black faces, violence, and criminality. Remarkably, these biases extend even to the faces of 5-year-old boys (Todd et al 2016).

Other research indicates that Black boys are perceived to be less "childlike" -- less innocent and vulnerable -- than their White peers (Goff et al 2014).

Studies also indicate that non-Black people overestimate the size and strength of Black males (e.g., Wilson et al 2017).

And pain?

In experiments, people show a bias for underestimating the pain experienced by Black individuals -- both physical pain and social pain (Mende-Siedlecki et al 2019; Mather et al 2012; Trawalter at al 2014; Deska et al 2020).

White people do it. Sometimes Black people do it, too. And -- in a study of predominately White, middle class children living in the United States -- researchers found evidence that this bias develops over time.

Five-year-olds didn't show any signs of this bias; seven-year-olds showed weak signs. But among ten-year-olds, the bias was strong and reliable. In just a few years, kids had learned to assume that Black children are "tougher," or less sensitive to pain, than White children are (Dore et al 2014).

So what do these studies tell us about the effects of biases on childhood?

They don't tell us everything we need to know about race and gender. They don't address all the ethnic diversity that exists. They focus mainly on just two racial categories in the United States -- Black and White.

But these studies confirms what many families have known first-hand. Kids aren't treated equitably. They don't get the same consideration, even when they behave in identical ways.

And reflect on the consequences.

What happens, for example, when adults mistakenly perceive anger in children?

Teachers may react with disapproval or anger, prompting kids to become truly angry about the injustice of their situation.

The student-teacher relationship could be damaged, exposing kids to higher levels of toxic stress, and undermining their prospects at school.

In some cases, adults may actually punish kids -- unfairly -- because they have perceived anger where it didn't exist.

And when kids get themselves into ambiguous situations, they aren't all given the same benefit of the doubt.

How many children get in trouble for offenses that they didn't commit? How often does developmentally-normal behavior elicit an unreasonable, insensitive, age-inappropriate response?

Kids can't fix this. Adults have to do it. And we can't place the burden on the children's parents. They aren't the ones who are misreading and misinterpreting their kids.

It's up to teachers, neighbors, administrators, law enforcement, and policymakers to become explicitly aware of the biases that affect our perceptions of children.

Studies show that we can overcome these biases by questioning our initial perceptions; rejecting stereotypes; tuning into children as individuals; and imagining how things look from their point of view (Forscher et al 2016). We simply have to make the effort.

It's a moral imperative, and a developmental one, too. Because double standards, miscarriages of justice, and racism...these aren't problems that suddenly emerge when a child becomes an adult. Kids encounter misjudgements, unfairness, and negative stereotypes at an early age, and the results can change the course of their lives.


More reading:

Want to know more about the impact of racial and gender stereotypes on children? See this Parenting Science article.

For a look at the importance of sensitive teachers, see my article, "Student-teacher relationships: Why emotional support matters."

And for evidence-based information about the role that white parents can play in fighting racism, see my article, 6 mistakes that white parents make about race -- and what to do about them.


References: Anger bias, threat bias, and children

Dore RA, Hoffman KM, Lillard AS, Trawalter S. 2014. Children's racial bias in perceptions of others' pain. Br J Dev Psychol. 32(2):218-31.

Goff PA, Jackson MC, Di Leone BA, Culotta CM, DiTomasso NA. 2014. The essence of innocence: consequences of dehumanizing Black children. J Pers Soc Psychol. 106(4):526-45.

Halberstadt AG, Cooke AN, Garner PW, Hughes SA, Oertwig D, Neupert SD. 2020. Racialized emotion recognition accuracy and anger bias of children's faces. Emotion. 2020 Jul 2. doi: 10.1037/emo0000756. Online ahead of print.

Halberstadt AG, Castro VL, Chu Q,  Lozada FT, and Sims CM. 2018. Teachers’ racialized emotion recognition, anger bias, and hostility attributions. Contemporary Educational Psychology 54: 125–138.

Hugenberg K and Bodenhausen,GV. 2003. Facing prejudice. Psychological Science 14: 640–643.

Deskaa JC, Kunstman J, Paige Lloyd E,  Almaraz SM, Bernstein MJ, Gonzales JP,  and Hugenberg K. 2020. Race-based biases in judgments of social pain. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 88: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2020.103964

Mathur VA, Richeson JA, Paice JA, Muzyka M, Chiao JY. 2014. Racial bias in pain perception and response: experimental examination of automatic and deliberate processes. J Pain. 15(5):476-84.

Mende-Siedlecki P, Qu-Lee J, Backer R, Van Bavel JJ. 2019.J Exp Psychol Gen. 2019 Perceptual contributions to racial bias in pain recognition. May;148(5):863-889.

Shipman N. 2020. Future Teachers More Likely to View Black Children as Angry, Even When They Are Not. Press release, NC State University, July 6, 2020: https://news.ncsu.edu/2020/07/race-anger-bias-kids/

Todd AR, Thiem KC, Neel R. 2016. Does Seeing Faces of Young Black Boys Facilitate the Identification of Threatening Stimuli? Psychol Sci. 27(3):384-93.

Trawalter S, Hoffman KM, Waytz A. 2012. Racial bias in perceptions of others' pain. PLoS One. 7(11):e48546.

Will M. 2020. Future Teachers Mistake Black Students as 'Angry' More Than White Students, Study Show. Education Week Teacher. Accessed 8/30/2020 at https://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/teaching_now/2020/07/future_teachers_mistake_black_students_angry_more_than_white_students.html

Wilson JP, Hugenberg K, Rule NO. 2017. Racial bias in judgments of physical size and formidability: From size to threat. J Pers Soc Psychol. 113(1):59-80.

Image credits

Title image of kids eating lunch © monkeybusinessimages / istock

Two images -- the image of children's facial expressions, and the bar graph -- come from the study published by Halberstadt and colleagues. These images are © the American Psychological Association and the journal Emotion. I reproduce them here in compliance with the APA's permission policy.

Content last modified 8/30/2020


Copyright © 2006-2020 by Gwen Dewar, Ph.D.; all rights reserved.
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