Identity politics is all around us. News bulletins, social media feeds, and broader social discussions are filled with claims and counter-claims of racism, sexism, or some other emerging forms of bigotry. With this in mind, I was interested in Channel 4’s documentary “Is Love Racist? The Dating Game”.
The documentary started innocuously enough, with a group of singletons talking about the traits and characteristics that they find attractive. However, inside the first two minutes, host Emma Dabiri, a social historian, stated that “through a series of experiments, [she would] uncover the hidden biases of ten typical young singles”. This seemed to set the tone for the rest of the show, with these ‘biases’ being presented through a series of psychological or behavioural tasks, as well as through survey data. While trying to quantify and measure social ills is to be commended, there seemed to be a focus on implying malice in these alleged biases where alternative explanations may have served just as useful.
Same-group attraction may not be ‘racial bias’
The first ‘experiment’ involved Dabiri asking random people on a shopping street to choose which people they would be most likely to date, based only on their names (e.g., ‘Oliver’, ‘Chung’, ‘Thomas’, ‘Mohammed’). Perhaps unsurprisingly, most people asked chosen traditionally British/White-sounding names. This was highlighted as evidence of racism. After all, all other things being equal, the ‘foreign’ names were chosen the least. Further, the data from a 5,000 participant survey revealed that, while 68% of the sample preferred to date their people of their own ethnicity, this number was substantially larger among White respondents.
Dabiri inferred from this that respondents were choosing on the basis of ‘racial identity’. However, there is an equally plausible explanations for these data, which in the absence of evidence of malice may be fairer conclusions to draw. These judgements may be based less around ethnic identity, but more around cultural closeness. There is evidence for this approach to mate selection within the psychological and sociological literature on ‘assortative mating’, which demonstrates how people are motivated to seek out those who have similar backgrounds, experiences, and values as them when looking for potential mates.
This approach clearly incorporates racial and ethnic assortative practices, but this in itself is not limited to biases among ‘majority’ groups. For example, increases in specific immigrant populations can contribute to decreases in inter-cultural marriages in these groups, while second-generation immigrants also seem to express a preference for mates who have a similar bicultural background. With this in mind, it seems premature to state (as intimated in the title of the documentary) that dating preferences are necessarily ‘racist’.
Measuring (dating) bias
There were two points of the documentary that made use of established experimental methods to examine claims of implicit racial bias in a more scientific way. The first involved making participants wear eye-tracking glasses to capture how long they looked at others while they interacted with people in a social environment. Again there was a clear result – all participants (regardless of their own racial identity or gender) focused more on White people than those of other racial categories.
This is an interesting finding, and definitely seems to require looking into, but it is important to understand what this type of data can tell us, and what it can’t. Eye-tracking (or more specifically viewing time, as was the measurement suggested in the documentary) is an established tool within the literature on measuring sexual interest. However, while this method can be effectively used to identify sexual preferences or attractions, the psychological mechanisms underpinning viewing time results, or the specific reasons for it, cannot be inferred by the viewing times alone. In short, it again seems a stretch to attribute malevolence (racism) to longer viewing times of sexually- or romantically-preferred targets.
Arguably of more concern was the links being made between these viewing time data and broader forms of social discrimination. To examine this idea, participants in the documentary sat an allegedly “well respected” Harvard-developed Race-Implicit Association Test (Race-IAT), which is a computerised reaction time task examining the speed at which you can classify racial stimuli (e.g., White vs. non-White faces) with positive and negative descriptors.
Several commentators have reviewed the use of IAT-based measures of implicit bias or preference. While heavily used for research purposes, there is an emerging body of work suggesting that while most people demonstrate a small association between ‘White’ and ‘positive’, these effects are not meaningfully related to overt prejudice or discrimination. Essentially (and similar to other TV shows using the IAT to showcase psychological work), the documentary presented a psychological task that could conceivably be measuring familiarity as being diagnostic (or at least symptomatic) of behavioural discrimination. This should be a concern for any psychologist trying to engage the public with the ways in which our science actually operates.
None of this is to suggest that some people choose not to date others for racist reasons. These people do exist, and if these are their reasons for discrimination, that is something to be challenged. Nor do these arguments go against another central argument of the documentary – that the proliferation of online dating and app-based hook-up culture may have negative effects in terms of making the development of relationships more superficial and potentially exclusory.
However, as a psychologist interested in social attitudes and increasing political polarisation, this type of presentation fails to do justice to research from a range of psychological areas. The moralisation of dating represents another front on which a culture war can now be fought. Another front on which society can be divided into the ‘good’ (who may suggest all preferences are bad) and ‘bad’ (who may suggest that all preferences are innate). Even if this front is to develop, we shouldn’t findings from psychological science to be selectively and politically represented as it does.