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Instinctive Staring

July 2008 - Research from Agnes Scott College published in Psychological Science studied the instinctive tendency for people in a group to stare at the person most likely to be offended if a controversial comment is made.

Researchers point out that for the individual on the receiving end, the insult is compounded by suddenly becoming the center of attention. Volunteers watched recorded discussions between three white and one black male on the topic of university admissions. One of the white males makes the following controversial comment:

"I think one problem with admissions is that too many qualified white students are not getting the spots they've earned. These students work hard all through school and then lose their spots to members of certain groups who have lower test scores, and come from less challenging environments. They get an unfair advantage."

The study compared responses when a narrator either explicitly stated that the whole group was involved in the discussion or that only two white members could hear what was being said. Researchers tracked participants' eye movements and found their gaze was fixed on the black member of the group four times longer when they believed he could hear what was being said. The authors suggest this is indicative of complex cognitive processes.

"Participants are simultaneously attending to what is said, who can hear what is said, the social identity of the listeners, and the possible reactions of the listeners."

The researchers argue that the reasons for this instinctive reaction are still unclear but suggest that people may be trying to take the responses of potentially victimized group members into account to help them assess the offensiveness of the situation.

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