Research Finds Whites Reluctant To Provide Critical Feedback To Minorities In An Academic Environment

February 18, 1998

WASHINGTON -- White students tend to evaluate essays written by Black students less critically than similar essays written by other White students, according to research to be reported in the March issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association (APA).

The studies, conducted by Stanford University psychologist Kent D. Harber, Ph.D., are some of the first to analyze interracial feedback, in which Whites evaluate the execution of a task by a minority and then communicate their performance assessments to that person. Dr. Harber analyzed written comments and grade-like ratings by nearly 200 White undergraduates on essays of comparable length, quality, and format supposedly composed by either a White or a Black fellow student in both studies.

White students who believed that the essay writer was Black provided more praise and less criticism regarding the essay than did White students who believed that the essay writer was White. In addition, the tone of summary comments addressed to the Black writer tended to be more supportive than those addressed to the White writer. Students directed their harshest comments to the White writer.

Dr. Harber found that the positive feedback bias was largely restricted to essay content (such as quality of ideas or strength of argument). There was no significant difference in the feedback regarding essay mechanics (grammar, spelling, or structure) due to the race of the supposed writer. The positive bias may be confined to essay content since content criticism is more interpersonally sensitive, in that it reflects on a writer's thinking and beliefs.

Criticism of mechanics may appear more objective, and therefore less prejudiced, than content criticism since established rules regarding mechanics appear in dictionaries and stylebooks.

"The positive feedback bias may present serious costs for minorities," says Dr. Harber. Excess praise and insufficient criticism in academics may deprive minority students of the mental challenges educators view as critical for intellectual growth. Blacks' wariness of Whites' praise, demonstrated in previous studies, may compound the ill-effects of inflated feedback. These findings may help explain why certain minorities are highly vulnerable to what Stanford University psychologist Claude M. Steele, Ph.D., labels "academic disidentification," the phenomenon in which success or failure in school ceases to matter to the student.

Research on third party evaluations, where evaluation is communicated to someone other than the person being critiqued, has shown that Whites often judge minorities with undue harshness. Dr. Harber believes that the negative bias in third party evaluations, coupled with the positive bias in direct feedback, puts minorities in a difficult situation. "Minorities are placed in dilemma," Dr. Harber says. "If both direct and indirect evaluations from Whites are prone to biases -- positive as well as negative -- then it becomes difficult for minorities to determine how they have acquitted themselves." While the study was conducted in an academic environment, Dr. Harber concludes that future research should investigate whether the positive feedback bias also occurs in the work place and in social settings.

Article: "Feedback to Minorities: Evidence of a Positive Bias" by Kent D. Harber, Ph.D., Stanford University, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 74, No. 3.

(Full text available from the APA Public Affairs Office.)

(Kent Harber, Ph.D., can be reached at American Institutes for Research at (650) 843-8169 or at

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 151,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 50 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 58 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.

American Psychological Association

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