Economic scarcity alters the perception of race

Economic scarcity alters the perception of race

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Published online before print on 2014-06-09
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1404448111

Amy R. Krosch
New York University

David M. Amodio, Associate Professor of Psychology and Neural Science
New York University


Racial disparities on socioeconomic indices expand dramatically during economic recession. Although prior explanations for this phenomenon have focused on institutional causes, our research reveals that perceived scarcity influences people’s visual representations of race in a way that may promote discrimination. Across four studies, scarce conditions led perceivers to view Black people as “darker” and “more stereotypically Black” in appearance, relative to control conditions, and this shift in perception under scarcity was sufficient to elicit reduced resource allocations to African American recipients. These findings introduce a “motivated perception” account for the proliferation of racial and ethnic discrimination during times of economic duress.


When the economy declines, racial minorities are hit the hardest. Although existing explanations for this effect focus on institutional causes, recent psychological findings suggest that scarcity may also alter perceptions of race in ways that exacerbate discrimination. We tested the hypothesis that economic resource scarcity causes decision makers to perceive African Americans as “Blacker” and that this visual distortion elicits disparities in the allocation of resources. Studies 1 and 2 demonstrated that scarcity altered perceptions of race, lowering subjects’ psychophysical threshold for seeing a mixed-race face as “Black” as opposed to “White.” In studies 3 and 4, scarcity led subjects to visualize African American faces as darker and more “stereotypically Black,” compared with a control condition. When presented to naïve subjects, face representations produced under scarcity elicited smaller allocations than control-condition representations. Together, these findings introduce a novel perceptual account for the proliferation of racial disparities under economic scarcity.

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