African-American Studies

How Attributional Ambiguity Keeps Minority Groups Guessing

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Imagine you've been working really hard to earn a promotion at work. You've been putting in long hours, having plenty of face time with the boss, and coming up with brilliant new strategies that showcase your out-of-the-box thinking. When the day finally comes, you find out they gave the job to your coworker. If you're like most people, you probably feel pretty disappointed, and maybe a little jealous. But what if your coworker is a young white man, and you're black, or a woman, or disabled, or in your 50s? You might wonder if you were passed up for the job not because your coworker was a better fit, but because of discrimination. Unfortunately, you'll probably never know. This sneaking uncertainty is known as attributional ambiguity, and it can suffuse every important moment in the lives of people in minority groups.

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Taking The Bad With The Good

The term attributional ambiguity was coined by psychologists Jennifer Crocker, Brenda Major, Maria Testa, and Kristin Voelkl in a 1991 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The study involved two experiments. In the first, they found that women who got negative feedback from an evaluator they knew was prejudiced didn't take it as seriously as women who had an impartial evaluator. Because the first group attributed the negative feedback to the evaluator's prejudice, they kept their self esteem intact.

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In the second experiment, they had black students listen to both positive and negative feedback from a white student who either could or couldn't see them. The black students who could be seen by the white student discounted both positive and negative feedback, showing that attributional ambiguity can not only protect your self esteem, it can also do it harm. That is, when you aren't sure if someone's actions are because of you as a person or because of your status, you tend to question everything. If our example above had resulted in something positive like a promotion at work, the person who was promoted still may have wondered: was I promoted because of my performance, or because my office wants to increase diversity?

Real-World Ambiguity

This deep-seated uncertainty pops up in all facets of life. Affirmative action policies that favor people who tend to suffer from discrimination, though created with the best of intentions, can particularly exacerbate attributional ambiguity: did you get into that school because of your grades, or because of your skin color? Attributional ambiguity even casts a shadow on qualities you might usually think of as being an advantage. The author and feminist icon Naomi Wolf once claimed that literary critic Harold Bloom put his hand on her thigh when he was her English professor at Yale. Twenty years later, according to The New Yorker, "she continued to wonder whether she was both beautiful and talented or merely beautiful; perhaps Bloom, and others before him, had played up her talents because they found her appealing, rather than because she was genuinely capable." The New Yorker points out that attributional ambiguity is the most likely when feedback is subjective—you can't fact check an opinion, after all.

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That's why getting around attributional ambiguity is so tricky: there aren't concrete facts to reference or answers to uncover. But what are concrete are your own strengths and accomplishments. If you think the feedback you're getting might be because the person is biased, take a sober look at your own résumé, or work, or whatever it is that gives you the clearest view of where you stand. And when it comes to doubting the authenticity of the good things that come to you, you might also want to think of them as payback. After all, being a person who suffers from discrimination is hard—maybe you've earned that good thing, regardless of how it happened.

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Written by Curiosity Staff April 11, 2017

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