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Dynamic Interracial/Intercultural Processes:

The Role of Lay Theories of Race

Ying-yi Hong,1 Melody Manchi Chao,2 and Sun No3

Nanyang Technological University, Singapore/University of

Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


Macalester College

ABSTRACT This paper explores how the lay theory approach provides a framework beyond previous stereotype/prejudice research to understand dynamic personality processes in interracial/ethnic contexts. The
authors conceptualize theory of race within the CognitiveAffective Personality System (CAPS), in which lay peoples beliefs regarding the essential nature of race sets up a mind-set through which individuals
construe and interpret their social experiences. The research ndings illustrate that endorsement of the essentialist theory (i.e., that race reects
deep-seated, inalterable essence and is indicative of traits and ability)
versus the social constructionist theory (i.e., that race is socially constructed, malleable, and arbitrary) are associated with different encoding
and representation of social information, which in turn affect feelings,
motivation, and competence in navigating between racial and cultural
boundaries. These ndings shed light on dynamic interracial/intercultural
processes. Relations of this approach to CAPS are discussed.

Anti-Semitism during the Nazi era has inspired psychologists to understand why some people harbored extreme prejudice and intense
hatred against people from certain social groups. Early research focused on identifying underlying personality traits that cause a stable
This article was partially supported by a grant from the Campus Research Board of the
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) awarded to Ying-yi Hong and
was prepared during Ying-yi Hongs tenure as Associate of the Center for Advanced
Study at UIUC.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Ying-yi Hong,
Nanyang Business School, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, 639798.

Journal of Personality 77:5, October 2009

r 2009, Copyright the Authors
Journal compilation r 2009, Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2009.00582.x


Hong, Chao, & No

tendency toward prejudice against outgroups. Most of these early researchers adopted a psychodynamic approach, among which are
Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswick, Levinson, and Sanfords (1950) research
on authoritarian personality and Allports (1954) notion of a crippled
ego. However, these attempts were not successful in nding a coherent
personality structure that predicted prejudice consistently; therefore psychodynamic approaches to understanding prejudice waned in the 1960s.
Recent research has focused on identifying the cognitive underpinnings of prejudice, such as Need for Cognition (Cacioppo &
Petty, 1982), Need for Structure (e.g., Neuberg & Newsom, 1993),
and Need for Cognitive Closure (Kruglanski, 1990; Kruglanski &
Webster, 1996). These approaches focus on individuals general information processing styles, such as their tendency to be cognitive
misers or faulty processors. These works have linked individuals
cognitive processing styles with their tendency toward stereotyping
and prejudice against maligned groups.
In the present paper, we seek to go beyond stereotyping and prejudice to understand intergroup relations. Specically, we look for
background assumptions or lay theories that would guide peoples
understanding of racial/ethnic information and, in turn, channel
their responses in interracial/ethnic settings. This approach follows
Kellys (1955) and Heiders (1958) argument that lay people are
na ve scientists who generate and use theories about the social world,
and Medin and colleagues (Medin, 1989; Murphy & Medin, 1985)
ndings that, indeed, peoples reasoning in a domain is guided by
their lay theory of that domain. In our case, we argue that how regular peoples understanding about the nature of racewhich we
have termed lay theory of racecreates a lens through which they
understand racial differences and conceptualize racial reality, which,
in turn, leads to particular ways of encoding, representing, and organizing information related to race. These processes then underlie
the personality dynamics in interracial/ethnic settings.
Our arguments relate closely to the central tenants of the CognitiveAffective Personality System (CAPS; Mischel & Shoda, 1995,
1999). According to the CAPS model, personality stability can be
found in the situation-behavior patterns, or if . . . then . . . signatures
(if situation A, then she or he does X, but if situation B, then she or
he does Y). Underlying the if . . . then . . . signatures is how individuals encode and represent social contexts, which in turn invokes responses that match their representations. That is, even when facing

Lay Theories of Race


the same situations, individuals who have encoded the social contexts
differently may have different affective experiences and generate different responses. For example, in the classic studies of delay of gratication (Mischel & Baker, 1975; Moore, Mischel, & Zeiss, 1976), children
who focused on the abstract representations of the temptation (e.g.,
imagining that the temptationmarshmallowsare clouds in the sky)
were able to delay longer than did children who thought about the
gratifying aspects of the temptation (e.g., thinking how tasty the
marshmallows are). Encoding the temptation in abstract ways allows
the cool system to kick in to regulate and deliberately control actions, whereas encoding the temptation in terms of its gratifying aspects
evokes the hot system that complies with impulsivity (Metcalfe &
Mischel, 1999). According to the CAPS model, the cool and hot
systems are different networks of some basic psychological unitsthe
CognitiveAffective Units (CAUs)which include encoding and construal, expectations and beliefs, feelings and emotions, goals and values,
and competencies and self-regulatory abilities. Increased activation of a
unit in a network would result in increased activation of other units in
the network, thereby resulting in a specic course of action.
Resonating with CAPS, our lay theory approach focuses on how
common peoples understanding about the nature of race sets up
meaning systems within which they interpret and understand social
information as racially keyed and, in turn, invokes a specic course of
action. Specically, we have identied two lay theories of race, one in
which race reects xed core essence and the other in which race does
not. When either of these theories comes to the fore of the mind, it
would activate different networks of CAUsencoding and construal
of social information and feelings, motivation, and competence in
navigating between racial categories and their associated cultural
boundaries. Before we delineate the processes, we rst discuss the
denitions of the two lay theories of race and their theoretical roots.
Lay Theories of Race: Essentialist Theory Versus Social
Constructionist Theory

There are obvious social disparities in many societies around the

globe based on outer physical characteristics such as skin tone, hair
texture, nose shape, body type, and so forth. There are also individual differences in abilities and personality traits. Lay theories of
race are beliefs that individuals hold that allow them to make sense


Hong, Chao, & No

of how these outer differences in physical characteristics correspond

to inner person attributes such as abilities and personality traits.
Our research has focused on two opposing views of race often
contested in social discourse and scientic debates (Celious & Oyserman, 2001; Gossett, 1997; Ossorio & Duster, 2005; Tate & Audette,
2001). One of the theories contends that race is determined by nonmalleable, deep-seated essence (can be genetic or otherwise biological, or other essence placeholders1) and the essence would give
rise to stable personality traits and abilities across situations. In this
view, race is not only real and has a material basis, but it is also
diagnostic of a multitude of human characteristics. We have termed
this the essentialist theory of race.
An opposing theory, however, denies the real existence of racial
essence. (In fact, scientists have not found genetic markers for race
in the human genome.) For some people, racial taxonomies are
invented (often by the dominant group) to justify and rationalize
existing inequality between groups. For others, racial taxonomies
are just convenient labels people use in a certain society or culture. A
person may be categorized differently depending on where he or she
goes in the world (e.g., in the United States vs. Brazil) and the meaning
of the racial categories could be altered when the social circumstances
change (Fairchild, Yee, Wyatt, & Weizmann, 1995; Zuckerman,
1990). In both cases, race is a social construction that is arbitrarily
created due to social and political reasons in historical contexts. Because the racial categorization is uid, any differences observed between racial groups do not reect deep-seated differences between the
groups. We have termed this the social constructionist theory of race.
Relating the Lay Theories of Race to Implicit Theories and
Psychological Essentialism

The two lay theories proposed are reminiscent of the implicit theories
that Dweck and her associates have identied for human attributes
(Dweck, Chiu, & Hong, 1995; Hong, Levy, & Chiu, 2001; Hong
et al., 2003). Specically, implicit theories are meaning construction
1. Although they often do, essential notions of race do not necessarily involve
biologically based explanations. For example, Black Americans may be believed
to be essentially different from Asian Americans because of differences in family
background and life experiences, strength and quality of ethnic identications,
and preferences for particular foods and activities.

Lay Theories of Race


frameworks, na ve or lay systems of beliefs, which people use in their

everyday life to interpret and evaluate their social world. A myriad
of research (see reviews by Dweck, 1999; Dweck et al., 1995) has
shown that some people are prone to view human attributes as reecting deep-seated dispositions that cannot be changed (i.e., an entity theory), whereas other people are prone to view human
attributes as dynamically affected by the psychological states of
the person in a given context and hence that they are malleable (i.e.,
an incremental theory). These two theories were found to coexist
within a single persons mind but were shown to differ in their relative chronic accessibility. Thus, when asked directly, participants
were able to indicate their relative endorsement of the entity or incremental theory. Importantly, individuals relative endorsement of
one theory over the other has been found to predict their social
judgments and intergroup perceptions such that stronger endorsement of entity theory (vs. incremental theory) was associated with
stronger stereotyping and prejudice (Hong et al., 2004; Levy,
Stroessner, & Dweck, 1998; cf. Keller, 2005).
Following the implicit theory approach, we conceptualize that the
two theories represent a continuum from a relatively static versus
dynamic view of race, which relates to previous ndings on psychological essentialism. To elaborate, research has shown that people
tend to infer a core dening essence underlying observed physical
differences across groups (e.g., Gelman & Hirschfeld, 1999; Haslam,
Rothschild, & Ernst, 2000, 2002; Medin & Ortony 1989; see GilWhite, 2001, for similar arguments for ethnic groups and Prentice &
Miller, 2006, for gender groups). According to Rothbart and Taylor
(1992), the imputation of an essence rests on whether a particular
social category is believed to possess inductive potential and inalterability. Inductive potential refers to whether group membership is
telling of individual members characteristics (e.g., traits, abilities,
and behaviors), whereas inalterability refers to whether group membership is xed for a relatively long duration. Extending these earlier
analyses of essentialism, Haslam and his colleagues (2000, 2002)
have differentiated two dimensions of psychological essentialism: the
natural kind and entitativity. The idea of the natural kind is associated with discreteness and a biological basis, whereas the idea of
entitativity is akin to the perception of members in a social category
as a coherent, unied, and meaningful category. The essentialist
theory of race maps onto the natural kind component of psycho-


Hong, Chao, & No

logical essentialism, which emphasizes the discreteness of racial

groups and a biological basis of race. In other words, the essentialist theory parallels beliefs associated with natural kind categories
such as tiger and gold (cf. Rothbart & Taylor, 1992) and represents the notion that categories possess core underlying properties
that are independent of human perceivers (Tate & Audette, 2001). In
contrast, the social constructionist theory of race parallels beliefs
associated with human artifacts such as chair and table and
posits that categories do not possess inalterable, inherent properties
(e.g., an overturned crate can be considered a chair) but are categorized by human perceivers nonetheless due to their motives to simplify and group by function.
Lay Theory Approach and the CAPS Model

Given that the two theories are based on opposing assumptions

about the nature of race, we posit that they would elicit different
encoding and organization of social information, which would, in
turn, inuence individuals motivation and competence in navigating
between racial categories and their associated cultural boundaries.
These processes concur with the CAPS model that personality can be
manifested in the organization and coactivation pattern of the
CAUs. That is, the lay theories of race may activate differential sensitivities in associating various physical features with the construct of
race in encoding, which would then be used by the perceiver to organize further information about targets and targets group memberships. Specically, an essentialist theory would activate more
differentiated, distinctive sensitivity in encoding physical features
(because race would provide diagnostic information to those who
hold an essentialist theory) than would the social constructionist
theory. Aside from greater sensitivity in encoding, an essentialist
theory would also be associated with representing different racial
groups as discrete entities, whereas a social constructionist theory
would construe more overlapping characteristics or attributes of
different racial groups and thus would represent the groups as less
Encoding Racial Differences
To test these ideas, in one study we examined Asian American participants perceptions toward Asian Americans and White Ameri-

Lay Theories of Race


cans (No et al., 2008, Study 1). Asian Americans who believe in an
essentialist lay theory of race were hypothesized to be more likely to
perceive other Asian Americans (racial ingroup) and White Americans (racial outgroup) as characterized by distinct and different attributes compared with their counterparts who believe in a social
constructionist theory of race. Participants were presented with the
Ten-Item Personality Inventory (TIPI; Gosling, Rentfrow, & Swann,
2003) and were asked to rate the extent to which the 10 personality
traits described a typical Asian American and a typical White American. Results showed that the more strongly Asian American participants endorsed the essentialist theory of race (vs. social
constructionist theory), the more dissimilar they perceived a typical
Asian American and a typical White American to be. This nding
suggests that the Asian Americans who endorse the essentialist theory more perceive greater dissimilarity between racial ingroup and
outgroup members, viewing the two groups as having less overlapping personalities, than do those who endorse the social constructionist theory.
Furthermore, in her dissertation research, Chao (2009) investigated individuals tendency and readiness to categorize people as
racially distinct. She hypothesized that higher endorsement of the
essentialist theory of race would be associated with heightened sensitivity toward subtle phenotypic differences and readiness to categorize people as being members of two distinct racial groups.
In her rst study, she presented racially ambiguous faces to the
participants in a judgment task. The faces were constructed by morphing the Black and White faces that were rated as racially unambiguous in a pilot test. In each trial, participants were presented with
pictures of two faces side by side: an original Black or White face and
a face generated by morphing one original Black face with one original White face. The BlackWhite composition of the morphed face
varied in each trial (e.g., 90% Black10% White, 80% Black20%
White . . . 20% Black80% White, 10% Black90% White, as shown
in Figure 1). For trials that included an original White face, the
participants were asked, Which one of the two faces is more likely
to be White? For trials that included an original Black face, the
participants were asked, Which one of the two faces is more likely
to be Black? Across both sets of trials, if those who believe in racial
essentialism are sensitive in detecting subtle phenotypic features associated with racial difference, they should be more able to select the


Hong, Chao, & No

Morphed Degree:






Morphed Degree:






Figure 1

Samples of morphed faces used in Chaos (2009) studies: Faces of (2)

to (9) are the morphed images of faces (1) and (10).

original photos of the White and Black faces. Indeed, we found that
the more participants endorsed the essentialist theory of race (vs.
social constructionist theory), the more likely they were to choose
the original, unmorphed picture, suggesting that belief in racial essentialism is linked to more sensitivity and accuracy in detecting
subtle phenotypic differences of Black and White facesan accuracy
that is above chance level. Interestingly, this encoding effect was
found for Black, White, and Asian American participants, suggesting that the effects of racial essentialism can be generalized from the
racial majority group to at least two racial minority groups within
the United States.
In her second study, Chao (2009) examined whether individuals
who endorse essentialist theory tend to rely on race as an organizing
principle to categorize individuals even when the categories appeared
to be arbitrarily dened. The study adapted the implicit category
learning paradigm (Markman, Baldwin, & Maddox, 2005), in which
two novel groups of targets were created by sampling morphed photos of Black and White faces at different graduations, such that the
average morphing graduation of Group A was on average more
Black (or less White) than Group B. Participants were told that the
study examined how people categorize individuals into groups and
were asked to decide to which group each target person belonged;
they were instructed to obtain as many correct categorizations as
possible and were given feedback after each trial as to whether they
had categorized a target correctly. Importantly, participants were

Lay Theories of Race


not informed regarding how the two groups differed. They had to
learn to differentiate the two groups through trial and error themselves across four blocks of trials. It was expected that the participants would show a category learning effect, such that their
sensitivity in detecting the membership of the two groups would increase over time from the rst block to the last one. More importantly, if the essentialist theory is linked to greater sensitivity toward
features associated with racial difference, the more likely race would
be invoked as an organizing principle for categorizing individuals
based on phenotypic differences that underlie the two novel categories. Thus, the more participants endorse the essentialist theory of
race (vs. the social constructionist theory), the better they would
perform on the task. Indeed, this was found, suggesting again that the
essentialist theory of race was associated with greater sensitivity in
detecting subtle differences in phenotypic features between Black and
White faces and readiness in using these differences to make category
judgments. Like the rst study, interestingly, this encoding effect was
again found among Black, White, and Asian American participants.
Construing Social Characteristics as Racial Differences
Given that individuals who endorse the essentialist theory tend to
represent racial groups as discrete, nonoverlapping categories, would
they be more likely to generalize both the positive and negative perceived characteristics of individual members to the racial group?
Also, would the facial features of the individual members matter?
That is, because essentialist theorists are sensitive toward features
associated with racial difference, would the effects of generalization
be stronger when the positive or negative behaviors are committed
by members with racially unambiguous features than by those with
ambiguous features? To test this idea, Chao (2009, Study 3) conducted an impression formation experiment to examine racial perception in which some behavioral descriptions were paired up with
photos of original and morphed Black and White faces. The behavior descriptions were pretested, and descriptions with different degrees of trusting were selected (e.g., He shares an apartment with
some other people, and always keeps the door of his own bedroom
locked when he is not at home. When his friends ask him about his
personal information [student number, account balance, etc.], he
does not hesitate to tell them.). The trusting dimension was selected


Hong, Chao, & No

because it is not stereotypically associated with either Blacks or

Whites ( Judd, Park, Ryan, Brauer, & Kraus, 1995; Lin, Kwan,
Cheung, & Fiske, 2005). Each behavioral description was paired
with a photo of its actor and presented one at a time to the participants. The participants were told that the pictures and behaviors
were sampled from the male members of an oratorio society on
campus and that we were interested in examining how individuals
form impressions of people. In some conditions, the behaviors that
paired up with the Black (original or morphed) faces were more
trusting than those paired up with the White (original or morphed)
faces. In other conditions, the pairing was reversed. The participants
were given 5 s to read through each picture-behavioral description
pair and form an overall impression of the group. After they completed a ller task, the participants were asked to rate how trusting
the Black members and the White members of the oratorio society
were based on their impression. As a stronger essentialist race belief
is associated with more sensitivity toward features associated with
racial difference and higher likelihood to engage in race-based categorization, we expected that participants endorsing essentialist race
theory would be more likely to make inferences about the Black and
White members of the society based on the behaviors of the racially
unambiguous members of the groups than did those endorsing the
theory less. The ndings provided support to this prediction. Also,
Black, White, and Asian American participants showed a similar
pattern of results.
It is important to note that participants who endorsed the essentialist theory did not only show negative attitudes toward the racial
minority; rather, they drew both positive (trusting) and negative
(nontrusting) inferences toward both racial minority and majority
groups, depending on whether the Black or White faces were paired
up with trusting versus nontrusting behaviors. Importantly, the generalization effect was stronger when the trusting/nontrusting behaviors were paired up with racially unambiguous faces than with
racially ambiguous faces, suggesting that the sensitivity in encoding
facial features can cascade down to inferences and generalization of
social characteristics to racial groups
These ndings suggest that the encoding processes set up by the
essentialist race theory can channel people toward making positive
or negative inferences of social groups, depending on contextual information. That is, the essentialist race theory is not necessarily as-

Lay Theories of Race


sociated with negativity against minority groups in all contexts. Instead, the theory activates a more nuanced ifthen contingency than
if minority groups, then react with negativity. The process involved is an interaction of encoding style (i.e., likelihood of racebased encoding and organization) and contextual information (the
valence of behaviors and whether it is performed by racially unambiguous actors). As such, the current program of research on essentialist theory of race goes beyond previous studies on stereotypes and
Taken together, ndings from these four studies support our prediction that the two theories invoke different encoding and construal
of social information; an essentialist theory, in comparison to the
social constructionist theory, is associated with greater sensitivity in
encoding racial features, and with representing racial categories as
more discrete, dissimilar entities. These differential tendencies of the
two lay theories then set up different patterns of inferences of social
characteristics to racial groups. Next, we explore how the two theories may also differentially activate other CAUs, including feelings,
motivation, and competence in navigating between racial categories
and their associated cultural boundaries.
Minority Groups Responses Toward Majority Culture

Thus far, we found similar lay theories of race effects among White
and Asian American participants in encoding, organization, and
construal of racial information. However, we were also interested in
how lay theories of race might set up different frameworks within
which racial minority individuals perceive and respond to their
differences from the majority race and culture. Specically, we found
(as discussed above) that racial minority individuals who believed in
the essentialist theory of race perceived the personality attributes of
their racial group and the majority racial group as more dissimilar
than did those who believed in the social constructionist theory (No
et al., 2008, Study 1). To those who hold the essentialist theory, the
differences perceived may be seen as deeply embedded in the core of
what it means to be a member of the racial minority and majority
group and fundamental to a persons self-denition. Therefore, they
would be unlikely to identify with the racial majority culture or eas-


Hong, Chao, & No

ily frame switch into the majority cultural perspective. In contrast,

racial minority members who subscribe to the social constructionist
theory may be inclined to understand their identity in terms of the
shifting meanings of various other pertinent social categories other
than race in changing intergroup contexts. That is, because these
individuals believe that racial categories are arbitrary and racial attributes are overlapping, they would not view racial membership as a
meaningful difference that prevents them from behaving in alignment or identifying with the majority culture. We will review empirical evidence pertaining to these hypotheses next.
Identication With the Majority Culture
Research has shown that there is a widespread tendency to associate
Americans with being White (American 5 White, shown by Devos
& Banaji, 2005). If Asian Americans who hold racial essentialist beliefs view their racial group as distinct from White Americans, they
would be less likely to identify with American culture in comparison
to Asian Americans who hold social constructionist beliefs. To test
this idea, we (No et al., 2008, Study 2) manipulated Asian Americans lay theories using the mock article methodology developed by
Chiu, Hong, and Dweck (1997). As noted, at the outset, we contended that the essentialist race theory and the social constructionist
theory are common folk theories coexisting in our culture. Also, we
argued that, depending on individuals prior experience and social
environment, an essentialist race theory or the social constructionist
theory may become more chronically accessible. However, it is also
possible to increase the temporary accessibility of one of the theories
by presenting participants with convincing evidence supporting one
of the theories. Indeed, this method has been shown to prime the
corresponding theory in previous research on implicit theories of
morality (Hong et al., 2003) and gender (Coleman & Hong, 2008).
To the extent that the essentialist race theory would orient Asian
American participants to perceive greater racial differences, we predicted that Asian American participants who were primed with the
essentialist theory of race would also show less identication with
American culture than would those who were primed with a social
constructionist theory of race. To test these predictions, we randomly presented Asian American participants with one of two bogus
articles ostensibly from Time magazine: In the essentialist theory

Lay Theories of Race


article, it advocated for the idea that there is essence underlying

racial groups. The concept of race has divided humankind into
meaningful social groups based on differences in their innate qualities, whereas the social constructionist theory article maintained
that the meaning of race is socially constructed. It is used to characterize different social groups. Indeed, as predicted, Asian American participants who read the essentialist race article showed less
American identication than did those who read the social constructionist article.
How about when Asian Americans are reminded of positive encounters with (White) American culture? To prime positive experiences with American culture, in another study (No et al., 2008, Study
3), we asked Asian American participants to recall instances of positive encounters with American culture. We manipulated high versus
low cultural salience by asking participants to recall a larger number
versus a smaller number of incidents in which they had comfortable
encounters with American culture and people. Assuming that participants nd it equally difcult or easy to recall the incidents across
conditions, recalling more comfortable incidents should be associated with higher accessibility of positive experiences with American
culture and, hence, greater identication with American culture. We
reasoned that this may be the case only for Asian Americans who
endorse the social constructionist theory because they would see racial boundaries as arbitrary and thus should be more likely to adjust
their strength of identication according to the immediate cultural
context. Therefore, they would show more American identication after recalling a larger number of positive encounters than a
smaller number. In contrast, for Asian Americans who more
strongly endorse essentialist race beliefs, we predicted less adjustment in levels of identication with the majority culture. These predictions were supported by the ndings. First, participants did not
differ in their recall difculty rating across the high versus low positivity salient conditions. Asian American participants who hold a
social constructionist theory showed an increase of American identication in the high cultural salient condition compared to the
low cultural salient condition. In contrast, Asian American participants who held the essentialist theory did not show any signicant
increase in their American identication. If anything, they identied
with American culture less after recalling a larger rather than lower
number of incidents, possibly because the high cultural salient


Hong, Chao, & No

condition deepened the divide between the racial ingroup and

Cultural Frame Switching
Asian Americans are simultaneously considered racially and culturally distinct. Thus we examined how Asian Americans cultural responses would be moderated by their relative endorsement of
essentialist or constructionist theories of race. In one study, Chao,
Chen, Roisman, and Hong (2007, Study 1) used a sequential priming
task in which Chinese American participants were presented with
Chinese and American pictorial icons as primes to activate Chinese
or American cultural representations across different trials (cf.
Hong, Morris, Chiu, & Benet-Martinez, 2000). Shortly after the
primes, the participants were asked to identify whether a string of
letters was a real word or not. The real words were Chinese value
terms or American value terms. We examined the extent to which the
Chinese and American icons facilitated or inhibited subsequent identication of core Chinese versus American cultural value words. If
the participants possessed discrete representations of the two cultures, their identication of American (Chinese) value words should
be facilitated more when preceded by American (Chinese) primes but
inhibited more when preceded by Chinese (American) primes, compared with their baseline responses when the primes were neutral.
Indeed, this pattern was found. More importantly, the effect was
moderated by individuals endorsement of essentialist theory. Specically, those who endorsed the essentialist theory of race more
tended to construe cultures as discrete entities; therefore, activation
of one cultural representation made these individuals stuck in that
cultural frame (at least temporarily) and slow to identify target stimuli associated with another cultural system, whereas those who endorse essentialist theory less tended to be more exible in switching
between cultural frames (Chao et al., Study 1).
In another study (No et al., 2008, Study 4), we focused on Asian
American participants assimilation toward American cultural primes.
Specically, we examined the pattern of emotional projection among
Asian Americans. Prior work by Cohen and Gunz (2002) showed
marked cultural differences in the perception and experience of emotions among individuals of Western and Eastern cultural traditions.
The researchers examined the projection of emotional experiences

Lay Theories of Race


onto generalized others among European Canadians and foreignborn Asian Canadians. Consistent with previous cross-cultural research ndings on independent and interdependent self-construal
(e.g., Markus & Kitayama, 1991), European Canadians displayed a
pattern of egocentric projection, where emotions felt by the self were
projected onto others (e.g., feeling anger and projecting anger
onto others), whereas Asian Canadians showed a pattern of relational
projection and perceived others as experiencing the complementary
emotion felt by the self (e.g., feeling anger and projecting fear
onto others).
Accordingly, we predicted that Asian Americans would show
more egocentric projection and less relational projection when
primed with American cultural icons and show more relational projection and less egocentric projection when primed with Asian cultural icons. We argued that this pattern would be moderated by
participants endorsement of essentialist race theory such that those
who more strongly endorse an essentialist race theory would be less
likely to display assimilation effects toward the American primes.
This is because the American primes would elicit intergroup comparison processes, reminding the Asian Americans who hold the essentialist theory of their essential, inalterable differences from the
White majority group. This study was conducted with Korean
Americans, and the ndings were consistent with our predictions.
Specically, whereas participants who endorsed the social constructionist theory assimilated toward the American cultural primes (i.e.,
responding with more egocentric projection and less relational projection), those who endorsed the essentialist theory did not show
such assimilation. Rather, the essentialists showed a contrastive pattern of responding when primed with the American cultural icons
(responding with less egocentric projection and more relational projection). This lack of assimilation toward American cultural primes
among participants who more strongly endorsed the essentialist theory raises the question of whether individuals are unwilling versus
unable to switch cultural frames. To the extent that the cultural icons
were effective in activating the corresponding cultural knowledge,
the lack of assimilation found in this study may be indicative of a
motivational reluctance to frame switch among those who endorse
essentialist race beliefs.
In short, these two cultural frame switching studies suggest that
racial essentialism, in comparison to social constructionism, is asso-


Hong, Chao, & No

ciated with a more discrete representation of cultures, thereby making it harder for the minority members to switch rapidly between
cultural frames; it also dampens their tendency to assimilate toward
the majority cultural frames.
Psychological Stress in Navigating Between Cultures
For racial minority members who endorse the essentialist theory,
discrete representations of cultures might further signify the impermeability of cultural boundaries; thus, discussing personal experiences within the two cultures may be highly stressful and lead to
increased vigilance because such recollection requires integrating the
two apparently discrete cultures and reconciling some seemingly
competing cultural attributes (e.g., cultural values). As a result, Chinese American participants who believe in racial essentialism were
expected to show heightened skin conductance (but not heightened
heart rate) when discussing their bicultural experiences. (Research
has shown that a heightened skin conductance with the absence of
heightened heart rate is a signature for stress and effortful responding; Roisman, Tsai, & Chiang, 2004.) To test this hypothesis, we interviewed 60 Chinese Americans individually (Chao et al., 2007,
Study 2). During these interviews, participants were asked to discuss
their personal experiences with both the Chinese and American cultures (e.g., Please generate 5 words to characterize your experiences
with Chinese culture and substantiate each word with your personal
stories. Please generate 5 words to characterize your experiences
with American culture and substantiate each word with your personal stories). These prompts set up a context within which the
participants were guided to explore their personal experiences with
the two cultures in some detail, thereby allowing us to obtain a reliable skin conductance reading. As predicted, endorsement of the
essentialist race theory was associated with a signicant increase in
skin conductance level (but not an increase in heart rate) when the
participants talked about their bicultural experiences, showing that
people who endorsed essentialist race theory more were more
stressful when discussing their bicultural experience than did people
who endorsed essentialist race theory less. Moreover, the change
in skin conductance level was not correlated with the participants
English prociency, ruling out the possibility that the participants
ability to understand and speak English confounded the results. Fur-

Lay Theories of Race


thermore, the effect of essentialist theory held regardless of the positivity or negativity of the experiences disclosed. In short, these ndings suggested that endorsing a stronger essentialist belief is linked to
greater stress and vigilance-related responses when integrating cultural experiences between the two apparently discrete cultures.
Taken together, consistent with the CAPS model, the lay theory that
individuals hold about race set up different if . . . then . . . behavioral
proles and shape individuals cognitive and affective responses in a
racially and culturally diverse society. Specically, the theories of race
activate different networks of encoding and construal and feelings and
motivation when navigating in diverse racial/ethnic social settings.
The research ndings illustrated that endorsement of the essentialist
theory of race, in comparison to endorsement of the social constructionist theory of race, promoted the tendency to group the self and
others into discrete racial categories and to perceive race as a salient
and meaningful social dimension. It links how individuals encoded
racial differences to race-based categorization and inferences.
Extending from the racial domain to the cultural domain, essentialist theory of race was found to be associated with perceiving cultures as being discrete and possessing rigid boundaries and inalterable
cultural essence. When negotiating between two cultures, endorsement
of the essentialist theory of race among racial minority individuals
inuenced their psychological processes in the face of two apparently
discrete cultures. For those who endorse the essentialist theory rather
than the social constructionist theory, discussing personal experiences
about the two cultures may have been relatively more stressful, leading
to increased vigilance in integrating and reconciling the seemingly
discrete cultural attributes. Furthermore, lay theory of race also inuences individuals ease of switching into the American cultural
mind-set and their identication toward American culture.
The Cultural Meaning of Lay Theories of Race

The lay theories of race do not exist in a social vacuum. It is shaped

by the intergroup relations in a society and may reect the shared
consensus in the society. This perspective gives rise to several interesting points of discussion.


Hong, Chao, & No

First, it is obvious that the mass media are important in creating

consensus in a society. Less obvious, however, are the processes involved. Our research suggests two possible ways that mass media
affect peoples views and perceptions in the racial domain. On the
one hand, as noted above, we found that presenting participants
with an article allegedly taken from a reputable media source primed
the participants to subscribe to the lay theory supported in the article
(No et al., 2008, Study 2). To the extent that recent discoveries in
human genomics have often been portrayed as evidence for genetic
markers of racial groups and human attributes in the media (Conrad, 1997, 2002; Nelkin & Lindee, 1995), the public could be swayed
toward the essentialist theory of race.
On the other hand, we also found that people holding the essentialist race theory can form positive as well as negative stereotypes of
certain racial groups, depending on whether positive or negative behaviors of the groups were portrayed. This implies that how the
media portray racial minority groups would have much inuence on
whether the essentialist race theory is linked to negative stereotyping,
prejudice, and discrimination of minority groups. Taken as a whole,
promoting the perception of a genetic reality of racial difference,
together with frequent reports of negative behaviors of racial minority individuals in the media, would arguably lead to widespread
prejudice and discrimination against racial minorities in the society.
This combination would also lead to negative self-views of a racial
minority group (cf. Sinclair, Pappas, & Lun, this issue).
Second, to the extent that White Americans have been the majority and dominant group in the United States, individuals who
endorse essentialist beliefs may generalize the assumed dispositions
of the White racial group to the American national group (such as
the American creed espoused by Huntington, 2004). In this framework, Americans who belong to other racial groups may be seen as
less American because they do not possess the core essence of the
national group. For members of racial minority groups, this would
mean that they could never become full-edged members of the
American national group. Therefore, those individuals may contrast
themselves from the American culture and show a low level of
American identication. For members of the majority group (White
Americans), those who hold the essentialist race theory may also
endorse attitudes that reinforce White Americans as being an exceptional group. Specically, they might (a) agree that the White racial

Lay Theories of Race


group and White values dene true Americans, (b) disapprove of

immigration because immigrant groups do not possess American
dispositions, and (c) endorse nationalism as they generalize the dominance of their racial group (White) to the national group. These
ideas could be tested in future research.
The essentialist race belief may also be useful in predicting the
majority group members navigation of cultural experiences. Would
White Americans holding an essentialist race belief also show difculty in navigating between their own culture and other major ethnic
cultures? This seems to be the case. In a recent study (Hong &
Zhang, 2006), we found that White American expatriates working in
Beijing, China, are signicantly less likely to engage in Chinese cultural practices and activities when they hold a stronger (vs. weaker)
essentialist race belief. This association remained signicant even
when prociency in Chinese language and length of residence in
China were statistically controlled. Based on this result, we therefore
reason that a belief in racial essentialism may also affect White
Americans exibility in navigating between cultures when they belong to a minority racial group.
Third, the endorsement of the essentialist theory or social constructionist theory could be affected by the cultural consensus as well.
In societies where the racial composition is considered to be relatively
homogenous (e.g., Japan, Mainland China2), the racial dimensions
may not be salient within the countries. When interacting with people
of different races from foreign countries, race is likely to be conceived
as an essence because it is a convenient explanation to account for the
numerous differences found between the groups. Indeed, we have
obtained preliminary data that showed that the Chinese college students in Beijing endorsed signicantly greater essentialist race theory
than did White American college students in the United States. With
the recent internationalization of mainland China, the Chinese people are having more contacts with people from different racial backgrounds, and it would be interesting to track how people from these
countries will change their lay theories of race.
Within a country, the endorsement of essentialism versus social
constructionism should also depend on the social dominance orien2. Although in terms of ethnicity there are over 55 ethnic groups in mainland
China, the Han group is an overwhelming majority. Thus, the ethnic composition
in China is arguably relatively homogeneous as well.


Hong, Chao, & No

tation of individuals (Pratto, Sidanius, Stallworth, & Malle, 1994).

For those who occupy the dominant status, they would be more
likely to endorse the essentialist race theory because it would justify
their status quo. That is, they can justify their dominant status by
stating that their racial group possesses some inherently more superior traits than do the oppressed racial groups. In fact, we have
found consistent evidence across several White American samples
that the endorsement of the essentialist race belief is positively associated with that of social dominance orientation (No & Hong,
2005). This suggests that essentializing race could be a way to justify
the dominant status of the majority group (Verkuyten, 2003).
Would people possessing a certain general cognitive style be more
likely to endorse the essentialist race theory? We have found that
there is no signicant relationship between essentialist race theory
and need for cognition, suggesting that people who endorse the essentialist race theory were not necessarily people who do not want to
think deeply. However, there is a moderate correlation between endorsement of essentialist race theory and need for cognitive closure
(rs 5 .20 to .30) in some samples but not in others. Again, we argued
that this relationship may depend on the consensual theory of race in
the society. Because people who have a high need for cognition have
a tendency to seize and freeze on the information that they nd, they
will endorse more highly the theory that is most prevalent in the
society, regardless of whether it is the essentialist theory of race or
social constructionist theory of race.
Lastly, would it be that our science has not advanced to the level
to allow us to identify the genetic code underlying racial categories?
Unless our current understanding of genetics is hugely awed, this is
unlikely to be the case.3 Moreover, the racial categorizations most
3. Indeed, the science community has warned against the use of genetic data to
dene racial groups. For example, as stated in the vision statement of the U.S.
National Human Genome Research Institute, Race is a largely non-biological
concept confounded by misunderstanding and a long history of prejudice. . . .
Most variation in the genome is shared between all populations, but certain alleles
are more frequent in some populations than in others, largely as a result of history
and geography. Use of genetic data to dene racial groups, or of racial categories
to classify biological traits, is prone to misinterpretation. To minimize such misinterpretation, . . . this will require research on how different individuals and cultures conceive of race, ethnicity, group identity and self-identity (Collins, Green,
Guttmacher, & Guyer, 2003, p. 10).

Lay Theories of Race


people make in their daily lives are based on others phenotypes.

However, genetic coding of different phenotypic traits (e.g., eye
color, hair texture) assorts independently of one another, one reason
why self-reported race often does not match genetic ancestry. For
example, genetic coding for eye color segregates from that for hair
texture and so forthgenes do not collate together and make up a
racial type. In any case, of greater interest to social psychologists
than whether or not race is identiable through genetic analysis is
that simply endorsing the essentialist or social constructionist belief
by itself has far-reaching implications on individuals conceptions of
others and their own identity.
Future Direction and Concluding Remarks

In this paper, using CAPS as a framework, we discussed how lay

theories of race affect peoples encoding and construal of social information and their motivation and competence in navigating between the cultural frames of different racial or ethnic groups. More
recently, Williams and Eberhardt (2008) have shown how belief in
the biological basis of race increases acceptance of racial inequalities
and reduces interest in interacting with racial outgroup members.
Importantly, Williams and Eberhardts ndings parallel our own
argument that beliefs regarding the nature of race do not necessarily
result in racial prejudice. That is, their research showed that belief in
the biological basis of race still predicted the outcome variables after
prior level of racial prejudice was statistically controlled. Their results, along with our own research ndings, shed light on how possessing a view of reality in which racial groups are divided by distinct
and irreconcilable differences versus a view of reality in which racial
outgroups are related not only to the self but to all humanity leads to
particular ways of encoding, representing, and organizing information related to race.
What is still lacking in these research programs, however, is how
lay theories of race affect African American participants responses.
The research we reviewed (including Williams & Eberhardt, 2008)
was conducted mainly with White or Asian participants, although
we have shown that essentialist race theory predicts racial encoding
and categorization among African Americans as well. The effects
could be complicated. On the one hand, African Americans as a
group have been historically disadvantaged and marginalized and


Hong, Chao, & No

are often characterized as biologically inferior or primitive (e.g.,

Goff, Eberhardt, Williams, & Jackson, 2008). Therefore, it is unlikely that African Americans would be willing to agree with these
negative stereotypes and their implied biological determinations of
race. On the other hand, given the continued experience of discrimination that African Americans collectively share, they may view
their own racial group as uniquely distinct from other racial groups.
For some, these shared experiences may form the essence of African
Americans and set them apart from other racial groups in a fundamental way. That is, the shared experience of oppression and discrimination in history may become a form of an essence placeholder
and used as a basis for racial essentialism. It is interesting to note
that essentialism is not by denition oppressive, just as anti-essentialism is not by denition liberating (Verkuyten, 2003, p. 374). For
disadvantaged racial groups, belief in a racial essence sometimes can
serve the purpose of legitimizing their racial identity and group
rights and aid in the celebration of their groups struggles against
dominant groups. It would be interesting in the future to examine if
the experience-based essentialism held by African Americans also
functions in a similar manner as biological-based essentialism. That
is, would the experience-based essentialism also activate race-based
encoding and organization, and decrease motivation to identify and
afliate with racial outgroups?
CAPS contends that different networks of CAUs can interact to
give rise to new types of ifthen proles. Inspired by this notion, we
have recently started a program of research to examine how Asians
Americans lay theories of race may interact with race-based rejection sensitivity (cf. Mendoza-Denton & Goldman-Flythe, this issue)
to give rise to different behavior patterns in intergroup settings in the
United States. First, we found that the essentialist race theory is associated with greater race-based rejection sensitivity than the social
constructionist theory. This is not surprising because we know that
the essentialist race is linked to race-based encoding and categorization of social information. Importantly, we also found that the
social constructionist theory of race buffered the detrimental effects
of Asians Americans race-based rejection sensitivity. It is argued
that racial categories and their associated characteristics are seen as
more malleable than inevitable under the social constructionist
framework. By contrast, those who hold the essentialist race theory
were likely to believe that the characteristics of their group are real


Lay Theories of Race

and can be used to explain why others reject their racial group. This
internal attribution tendency intensied the negative affect one may
experience in interracial settings. These ndings support CAPSs
notion that different networks of CAUs can interact to guide dynamic personality processes.
In a similar vein, lay theories of race could also moderate participants tendency to self-stereotype (cf. Sinclair et al., this issue).
Again, individuals who endorse the social constructionist theory
may be less likely than those who endorse the essentialist race theory
to characterize the self in ways that are consistent with racial stereotypes (i.e., self-stereotype) even when they are motivated to accommodate the shared reality of their interactants. It is because
racial categories and their associated characteristics are seen as more
malleable than inevitable under the social constructionist framework. As a result, individuals would be less likely to see the stereotype-consistent attributes as valid descriptors of themselves.
Consistent with this idea, it was found that a belief in malleable intelligence has protected African American participants from the detrimental effects of stereotype threat in academic settings (Aronson,
Fried, & Good, 2002)
To conclude, with the rapid increases in the mobility of labor
forces and globalization, many societies are getting more racially,
ethnically, and culturally diverse. Race, ethnicity, and culture will
become an increasingly salient dimension of social categorization;
hence, it becomes ever more pressing to examine how lay people
understand and formulate theories to explain the observed differences across different racial, ethnic, and cultural groups. Our model
instantiates the CAPS model by showing how the lay theories of race
invoke different networks of CAUs, which, in turn, gives rise to the
dynamic processes in interracial contexts. By understanding lay peoples theorizing about their social reality, the current research has
far-reaching implications for the building of a successful multicultural society.

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