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Why Are They Being so Nice? Perceived Motives Shape Reactions to Intergroup Contact

October 13, 2013

By Jonathan W. Kunstman (Miami University) and Brenda Major (University of California, Santa Barbara)

Race-relations in America are complex. The ongoing movement for racial equality has succeeded in reducing many forms of discrimination and racists are increasingly looked down upon in the United States. As a result, many White Americans fear appearing prejudiced. Although the desire to avoid appearing prejudiced can reduce discrimination, it also complicates everyday interracial interactions. When the specter of appearing racist looms over interracial interactions, how do minority-group members decide whether Whites are being genuinely friendly or merely trying to avoid the appearance of prejudice? Moreover, what are the consequences when minority-group members believe Whites are motivated primarily by the latter and not the former?

Research in social psychology suggests that positive responses from Whites toward racial minorities can be hard to decipher. Contemporary racism is covert, subtle, and more likely to occur privately behind closed doors than in public (e.g., Dovidio, Kawakami, & Gaertner, 2002; Plant & Devine, 2001). Moreover, prejudiced Whites sometimes use positive overtures to hide their biases from minority-group members. As a result, Whites’ public responses may not always match their private racial attitudes.  Not surprisingly, minority-group members may sometimes doubt the authenticity of positive overtures from Whites.

Furthermore, several studies indicate that minorities sometimes react negatively to positive evaluations from Whites. For example, across a series of studies, praise from White evaluators reduced the self-esteem of minority participants (Crocker, Voelkel, Testa, & Major, 1991; Hoyt, Aguilar, Kaiser, Blascovich, & Lee, 2007; see also Mendes, Major, McCoy, & Blascovich, 2008). What could explain this paradoxical finding that positive feedback from White peers sometimes makes members of racial and ethnic minorities feel worse about themselves?

We believe part of the answer relates to minority-group members’ beliefs about Whites’ motives for egalitarian behavior. Whereas some minorities may believe Whites are motivated to be nice to them because of personal desires to be egalitarian, others may believe Whites are motivated primarily because they want to appear egalitarian to others (For more on Whites’ motives, see Plant & Devine, 1998; Kunstman, Plant, Zielaskowski, & LaCosse, 2013). We hypothesized that minorities’ beliefs about these distinct motives would shape how they perceived positive treatment from Whites. To investigate this hypothesis, we first developed a measure of minorities’ beliefs about Whites’ motives for egalitarian behavior (Major, Sawyer, & Kunstman, 2013). Named the Perceived Motives for Avoiding Prejudice scale (PMAP), the measure used two subscales to assess minorities’ distinct perceptions of Whites’ personal (internal) and social (external) motives to avoid prejudice.

When validating PMAP, we found that minority-group members (mostly Latino/as) varied widely in their perceptions of Whites’ motives. Some thought Whites cared only about how they appeared to others; some believed Whites were motivated primarily by personal egalitarian beliefs. Still others believed Whites’ were motivated by both motivations or by neither. We also discovered that on average, minority respondents in our college samples believed Whites were more motivated by personal beliefs than social concerns. Thus, it appears that most minority-group members believe Whites legitimately want to be egalitarian. Moreover, it is worth noting that PMAP was only modestly related to concerns and past experiences with White racism. Hence, beliefs that Whites’ are motivated to avoid appearing prejudiced are distinct from past experiences of discrimination from Whites.

We next used PMAP to predict how Latino/a students evaluated an interracial interaction. They read that a White college student (Rebecca) evaluated an essay written by an African American classmate (Lisa). The essay was intentionally designed to be of dubious quality. Nonetheless, participants learned that Rebecca gave Lisa a glowing review and told her she thought the essay deserved an “A”.  As we expected, participants’ beliefs about Whites’ motives affected how they viewed Rebecca’s feedback. The more participants believed Whites’ were motivated by social concerns with appearing prejudiced, the less authentic they perceived the feedback and the less favorably they evaluated Lisa’s essay. Thus, suspicion of Whites’ motives led participants to dismiss Rebecca’s feedback and discredit Lisa’s work.

In a follow-up study, we also manipulated Lisa’s ostensible ethnicity. Half the participants believed Lisa was Latina, the other half believed she was White. We again measured Latino/a participants’ beliefs about Whites’ motives prior to the experiment. As in our first study, we found that participants’ beliefs played an important role in how they responded. When they thought Lisa was Latina, the more participants believed Whites’ were motivated primarily by social concerns with appearing prejudiced, the less authentic they saw Rebecca’s feedback and the more negatively they evaluated Lisa’s essay. Moreover, perceptions that Rebecca’s feedback was inauthentic mediated the effect of minorities’ beliefs about Whites’ motives on ratings of Lisa’s essay. Among minorities suspicious of Whites’ motives, the less authentic they saw Rebecca’s feedback, the worse they evaluated Lisa’s essay (See Figure 1).  Importantly, these effects disappeared when Lisa was believed to be White. When minority-group members suspect positive responses from Whites are motivated purely by social concerns, not only do they doubt the authenticity of Whites’ praise, but they also respond more negatively to the work of ethnic ingroup members.


Figure 1. Simple mediation model depicting the interactive effect of minorities’ beliefs about Whites’ motives and Lisa’s ethnicity on feedback authenticity and ratings of Lisa’s essay. Standardized regression coefficients (betas) are presented. * p < .05, ** p < .01.

Collectively, this research suggests that minorities’ beliefs about Whites’ motives play an important role in shaping their perceptions of interracial interactions. Although overall, minority-group members seem to give Whites the benefit of the doubt and believe personal desires to be egalitarian outweigh social concerns with appearing prejudiced; there is considerable variability in these beliefs.  For minority-group members who think Whites are driven purely by a desire to avoid looking prejudiced, positive overtures from Whites may—paradoxically–have negative effects on intergroup relations.

Author Information

kunstmanJonathan W. Kunstman is a social psychologist at Miami University. Jonathan studies the psychological experience of power and motivational approaches to improving intergroup interactions.


MajorBrenda Major is Distinguished Professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her work focuses on social stigma, the psychological justification of inequality, and the antecedents and consequences of perceived discrimination and unfair treatment. Current research projects examine the impact of organizational diversity initiatives on perceptions of fairness and acceptance of inequality within organizations, and the impact of perceived ethnic, gender, and weight-based discrimination on physiological stress responses, health behaviors, and interpersonal relationships.


Crocker, J., Voelkl, K., Testa, M., & Major, B. (1991). Social stigma: The affective consequences of attributional ambiguity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 218-228.

Dovidio, J.F., Kawakami, K., & Gaertner, S.L.  (2002). Implicit and explicit prejudice and interracial interactions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 62-68.

Hoyt, C.L., Aguilar, L., Kaiser, C.R., Blascovich, J., & Lee, K. (2007). The self-protective and undermining effects of attributional ambiguity. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43, 884-893.

Kunstman, J. W., Plant, E. A., & LaCosse, J. Zielaskowski, K. (2013). Feeling in with the outgroup: Need fulfillment and the internalization of motivation to respond without prejudice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 105, 443-457.

Major, B., Sawyer, P., & Kunstman, J. W. (2013). Minority Perceptions of Whites’ Motives for Responding without Prejudice: The Perceived Internal and External Motivation to Avoid Prejudice Scales. Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 401-414.

Mendes, W.B., Major, B., McCoy, S., & Blascovich, J. (2008). How attributional ambiguity shapes physiological and emotional responses to social rejection and acceptance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94, 278-291.

Plant, E.A., & Devine, P.G. (1998). Internal and external motivation to respond without prejudice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 811-832.

Plant, E.A., & Devine, P.G. (2001). Responses to other-imposed pro-Black pressure: Acceptance or backlash? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 37, 486-501.

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