Chicago Booth Review Podcast Why Do We Say Less When a Black Child Goes Missing?
- August 23, 2023
- CBR Podcast
Hal Weitzman: It’s no revelation that the language we use often says more about us than whatever it’s describing. But what about the number of words? The more we’re surprised by something, the more we’re likely to say about it, and that can reveal all sorts of prejudices that we might not be aware of.
Welcome to the Chicago Booth Review Podcast, where we bring you groundbreaking academic research in a clear and straightforward way. I’m Hal Weitzman, and in this episode, we’re going to take a deep dive into one single research paper with one Chicago Booth researcher.
Ayelet Fishbach is a professor of behavioral science and marketing, and her recent paper on what she calls “surprised elaboration” caught our eye and we thought it was worth elaborating on. Here’s our conversation.
Ayelet Fishbach: Hi, I’m Ayelet Fishbach. I’m a professor at Chicago Booth. I study motivation and decision-making.
Hal Weitzman: Well, thank you very much for speaking with us today on the Chicago Booth Review Podcast. We’re here to talk about surprised elaboration, which is the subject of some of your recent research. In a nutshell, what is surprised elaboration?
Ayelet Fishbach: Surprised elaboration is when you say more because you are surprised, you try to make sense of what’s going on. If you go to the grocery store and see a white strawberry, you might want to explain this, you might say a few things about it. If you see something that contradicts your stereotypes, you might also say more. And so we can infer your stereotypes by how much you say.
Hal Weitzman: Did you come up with the phrase surprised elaboration?
Ayelet Fishbach: We did come up with surprised elaboration. OK. What the previous research found is that people elaborate on the unexpected. OK, this is the white strawberry.
Hal Weitzman: I see. Was that unexpected elaboration and yours is surprised elaboration? Is there a difference?
Ayelet Fishbach: Well, I don’t know that there is an unexpected elaboration term in the literature.
Hal Weitzman: OK. All right.
Ayelet Fishbach: The idea exists.
Hal Weitzman: You scooped it by coming up with your own term and you went for surprise.
Ayelet Fishbach: Yeah. Well, we went for surprised elaboration because we needed the term and it did not exist.
Hal Weitzman: Got it. We probably all stereotype strawberries, which maybe isn’t a terrible thing.
Ayelet Fishbach: Not a problem at all, OK. We can stereotype berries and other foods. Also, stereotypes are not always problematic. These are our theories. These are often theories about people, OK. This is how we make sense of the world. We say one group of people is like this, and the other group of people is like that. Stereotypes become problematic when they are overgeneralizations, OK. When we don’t recognize that just because someone belongs to a group doesn’t mean that they have all these characteristics that we associate with a group. And in particular, stereotypes become problematic where there are negative stereotypes, when we expect people to underperform because of their social group. Now, if you ask people to just tell you about the stereotypes, the common response is going to be, I don’t have any stereotypes. I just see people for who they are. And so we as social psychologists look at other ways to see how people think about social groups. And one way we can know whether people have different expectations from different groups of people is through surprised elaboration, is through this very normal tendency to say more when something is surprising.
For example, if people say more when some negative events happen to a majority group member, we can infer that they have negative expectations for minority group members.
Hal Weitzman: OK. I’m going to ask you to sort of nail down what you actually did in a minute, but I’m interested in this idea, surprised elaboration. Is there a history of this concept in psychology? Where does it come from?
Ayelet Fishbach: There is some research in psychology looking at how people make sense of the world and the idea that they say more when something doesn’t fit their expectations. That common example is people talking about milk versus spoiled milk. When you say milk, you don’t need to explain, you have just one word. When something is bad with the milk, then you need to explain, then you say spoiled milk. OK. You provide some explanation. And we know this from research in psychology and linguistics that when something doesn’t conform with expectations and people say more. I ask you how are you doing? And if everything is fine, you say good, OK. If not, then you elaborate.
Hal Weitzman: Let’s turn to your research because as you say, you can’t necessarily trust people to identify their own prejudices and ways of understanding the world and biases. You use these techniques to reveal those biases. What did you do?
Ayelet Fishbach: What Lauren Eskreis-Winkler, who was a postdoc here, now faculty at Northwestern, and I did was looking at how much people say when they learn about unfortunate events or fortunate events that happen to people who are either majority or minority members. And in particular, we looked at white people versus Black and Hispanic. And we just looked at how much people elaborate. We started with an existing dataset of missing children. Basically if a child goes missing in the US, there is a report telling you what’s their name and where they might be headed to, maybe what they’re wearing, maybe more details. And we are just looking at the lengths of this report, how much is being said by the authorities. And what we found is that these reports are longer for white children, which is some evidence that when people are surprised, they don’t expect majority members to have unfortunate events, in this case to have children leave home, run away from home, then they elaborate more.
Hal Weitzman: OK. Just so I understand, so what your research suggests is that people don’t expect white children to run away from home or to go missing as often as they do the minority children that you’re looking. Is that right?
Ayelet Fishbach: That’s what we infer from their elaboration, OK.
Hal Weitzman: OK.
Ayelet Fishbach: And so they don’t tell us that, right? What they say reveals that this is the effect. Now I have some examples just that you get a sense of this effect. The person who writes the report can write a long report. It would be something like the juvenile left her brothers sponsors residence on this date. She was seen wearing black pants and a black shirt with pink flowers. They give her name and say she believed to be on the way to Maryland or Delaware, OK. This is quite elaborated in our dataset. A short report would say that her name did not return home after school. She might be in New Haven, Connecticut. And then we consistently find that these descriptions tend to be longer. They tell you what the person is wearing, something about their inner states, maybe, what they might have in mind is the destination when these are white children and fewer details for the Black and Hispanic children.
Hal Weitzman: And these reports are written by the authorities who are looking for these kids, is that right?
Ayelet Fishbach: Yes.
Hal Weitzman: OK. I guess one question I would have about that is do more white children go missing, therefore, do we need more description in order to find them because there are more white children in the United States?
Ayelet Fishbach: Well, in terms of the proportion-
Hal Weitzman: Well, in terms of the numbers, are they just generally more?
Ayelet Fishbach: Yes. We looked at California, New York, Texas, and Florida. I believe that the minority children were about 40% of the children in these states. But though I am not quite sure about the number, and they were the same proportion of kids missing. Can you make the argument that because there are many white children, you need to know the color of the shirt, but there are so few Black children so that the color of the shirt will not be indicative? Well, I don’t think so. There are many kids of all social groups.
Hal Weitzman: For comparison, do you have another description that has fewer details that you can share with us?
Ayelet Fishbach: I will share a description from another study, and this is unidentified bodies, OK. And so this is a bit more sensitive maybe for some of the listeners. But when a person is found dead and doesn’t have identifying information, then medical examiners will write a report that basically describes what happened to this person, which presumably should help the family or whoever is looking for that person later find them. Now, we looked at these descriptions partially because we wanted to look at the different dataset, but also because we were concerned that maybe in the missing children’s reports, the reports for white children are longer because the families may have more resources, may ask for more descriptions. In unidentified bodies, there is no one that asks for descriptions, OK. It’s really the people who write this and a long one would describe how exactly this individual died, OK.
Here they were struck by a semi-truck on I-435 on a particular date at 11:00 PM. The driver called 911 to report the incident. The death was confirmed by emergency personnel. It should be noted that the face of the individual is recognizable but has severe trauma. There is not a lot of information here. It really doesn’t matter that the driver called 911, OK. It doesn’t help finding the person, but there is some elaboration. That short description, for example, would say something like Black male found submerged in water near South Point First Street. That’s it, OK. There is not much elaboration.
Now, I find these descriptions insightful because they really don’t help you find the person when they say more, OK. They don’t help you identify the person when they say more. What they do is reflect on the surprise of the person who’s elaborating. The person who’s elaborating feels that this is unexpected. We need to understand how this happened. And so they go into the details of how the police was called exactly and what happened when they collected the person. And this is significantly more likely to be the case for white victims.
Hal Weitzman: OK. And do you find anything to do with gender or age that also reflects these kinds of patterns? Do we expect more that boys go missing than girls, for example, or teenage girls more than girls under 10? I don’t know.
Ayelet Fishbach: It’s interesting. There is definitely effect for age, which is consistent with our theorizing. There is more elaboration for younger children. It is very surprising when a 6-year-old disappears. It is unfortunately not very surprising when a 16-year-old disappears because they can often run away from home. And so there is a large effect where the younger the kid, the more elaboration there is. There is no effect for gender. That was interesting for us because we thought maybe people have some theories that boys or girls are more likely to go missing. We didn’t see any effect. And I think that people recognize that most of the time when children go missing, they run away from home. They are mostly teenagers, boys and girls.
Hal Weitzman: You’ve been talking about some of the examples you research and they’re negative, they’re not positive examples. But you have some very positive examples too about weddings. Everybody loves to talk about weddings and apparently some weddings more than others. Tell us about your research about how people described weddings.
Ayelet Fishbach: Moving to a positive event. By our logic, people should elaborate more when something good happens to a minority member, OK. To a group that they did not expect to hear positive news about. And so we looked at wedding articles in the New York Times, and these are the articles that describe the wedding of a celebrity or someone that the New York Times wanted to feature the wedding. They’re not the one-sentence announcements. They are more of elaborated articles. And these tend to be significantly longer for same-sex marriages. And so same-sex couples are getting more words than heterosexual couples. And this is likely because the New York Times is either more surprised or expect their audience to be more surprised by their wedding and so they say more.
Hal Weitzman: That’s interesting. You found that the New York Times was more likely to write more words about the wedding of a same-sex couple than of a heterosexual couple. But again, did you find that the New York Times wrote more words if the same-sex couple were, let’s say, Black or Hispanic or mixed, what did you find there?
Ayelet Fishbach: Well, we did not have a large enough sample.
Hal Weitzman: OK. What would be your expectation though?
Ayelet Fishbach: First, in order to test it, you need a very large sample, OK. You need to have hundreds of same-sex Hispanic couples that the New York Times decided to write about, OK. And that will take some years to accumulate.
Hal Weitzman: The message is to the people out there keep getting married?
Ayelet Fishbach: Yeah. Keep getting married, yes.
Hal Weitzman: And we get bigger data sets.
Ayelet Fishbach: Don’t run away from home, keep getting married. That’s-
Hal Weitzman: Good advice.
Ayelet Fishbach: Yeah. My advice for the day, but I would say that what you expect is I think that I would expect that there will be longer reports for minority members getting married, but I’m not absolutely sure. I would like to see the data. And the reason is that I’m learning about the societal stereotypes from what I’m observing. Now I knew that there was a stereotype that same-sex marriages are less likely to happen, OK. This is a stereotype that has been documented before. We also know that people expect same-sex couples to not survive as long as heterosexual couples and that this is wrong, OK. But this is the stereotype we see.
Hal Weitzman: You mean the relationship won’t last as long?
Ayelet Fishbach: Yes.
Hal Weitzman: Right.
Ayelet Fishbach: People have this stereotype and it’s not backed up with data in the US.
Hal Weitzman: Mm-hmm.
Ayelet Fishbach: Now, what is people’s stereotype about the length of marriage between two minority members? I think that they might also expect it to be shorter, but I don’t know that they would expect minority members to be less likely to get married.
Hal Weitzman: I mean, what do you think is the significance of this research? You’ve talked about what’s driving it, the prejudices that you are revealing.
Ayelet Fishbach: Yes. This is important, OK, because for us as researchers, we might be just glad that we have another way to be able to identify stereotypes when people don’t want to tell us about them. But the significance is much more than that. And it’s much more than that because when you elaborate more, there is an audience, there is someone who reads or listens to this elaboration. And as it turned out, when you say more, people believe that this is more important. I have an example here from a study in which we gave people the same length of description that they could read, OK. They read about Arch who was last seen somewhere, and he may go by his full name Archie. And they read about Gabe who was last seen in another place and may go by his full name Gabriel. And then there is some description that they cannot read, OK. We purposely made the text such that it’s just unclear. And as it turned out for Arch, there’s just two lines that they cannot read. And for Gabe, there is a whole paragraph.
The majority of the people say that they would like to direct resources to Gabe’s case and not to Arch. They go by length and they cannot even read what is in the lengthy description. They basically choose to invest resources in the case because it got someone else’s attention.
Hal Weitzman: Does that mean that we spend more police time, for example, looking for somebody if the description of that missing person is longer?
Ayelet Fishbach: It is extremely important. And we keep in mind that when we decide to not say much, because it doesn’t surprise us, we end up not saying enough to get the public to care about something. Yes, if the media is giving attention to some cases and not others, these are the cases that get investigated.
Hal Weitzman: OK. The more we hear, the more important we think it is?
Ayelet Fishbach: Yes.
Hal Weitzman: What are some other places you would expect to see surprised elaboration? You think of-
Ayelet Fishbach: Yes. Well, you see it everywhere, OK. In our data, we saw it when elaborating on an award that some teacher won, OK. And we find that if that teacher was a minority member, if we said that there was a Black teacher, then people elaborated more. And they would expect that we pay more attention when someone from a group that we did not expect to do well is doing well, we would pay more attention and we would write more, we would say more. And often this is good, OK. A woman won some prize in a field where you would expect only men to do well and then the media gives it much attention. And this is great, OK. And maybe that will teach people that minority members can do that too. Often when you look at the media reports, they are more likely to conform with the idea that we elaborate on unfortunate events when they happen to majority members, OK. When a crime is in white suburbs, it will get more attention than if it’s in an inner city.
Hal Weitzman: As you say that some of this is positive and quite a lot of it is negative, and it sounds like perhaps the negative slightly outweighs the positive. What could we do with this? What can we, as individuals, do with this and is there an application, is there a policy implication?
Ayelet Fishbach: As individuals who disseminate ideas, as someone who writes research papers, which is me, or someone who’s disseminating ideas in the media like you, we want to be aware that when we say more, we might reveal stereotypes and we might actually enhance the stereotype in society. What to do about it, well, try to pay attention to say more when unfortunate events happen to minority members. And just try to not let your stereotypes influence how much you say about people.
Hal Weitzman: How did you personally become interested in this topic, Ayelet? What drew you to it?
Ayelet Fishbach: Well, luckily it was not that I knew a missing child, it was something that was long in my mind, since we found that people elaborate more when negative things happen, OK. And we did research on negative feedback and negative information, and we found that people hesitate to give negative feedback, they hesitate to write negative reviews, they hesitate to tell another person something negative. But when they do, they elaborate, OK. When they feel that they have to, they say a little bit more because often we thought they were surprised. They want to make sense of what happened.
Hal Weitzman: That’s interesting. People are more likely to, if they say, this is great, movie was great, and someone else says movie sucked, they’re more likely to elaborate on the negative review than on the positive.
Ayelet Fishbach: Yes. And this is a very general effect, OK. There are very few reviews that say that the movie sucked, OK. There are many reviews that say that the movie is great. If you did not like the movie, then you are surprised, OK. Why did I go there? Why did I watch it if it wasn’t good and you try to make sense. Is it the plot or the chemistry between the actors or it’s too long, it’s too short.
Hal Weitzman: Interesting. And so if you’re in a conversation and you said the movie sucked, is the other person more likely to say, why didn’t you like it? Or then if you said it was great, then they don’t really care why?
Ayelet Fishbach: And same thing for my example of asking you, how are you doing? If you say, great, the conversation ended just there. If you say bad, well...
Hal Weitzman: Which is why we usually say, great because we don’t want to get into a stop and chat.
Ayelet Fishbach: Exactly. OK. Yeah. And so we were observing this and we thought, well, this could have implications for how people process information that relates to social groups and then stereotyping and given that we are both psychologists and want to understand how people think about the social world. And that was an intuitive place to go to.
Hal Weitzman: And have you yourself benefited from this effect? Because I know you’ve talked about how your name is Ayelet, which is unusual in the United States, hard for people to say. Have you benefited because you have this unusual name? Your research might draw more attention than Joe Schmoe.
Ayelet Fishbach: Yeah. I think that my research basically goes under my last name, which is Fishbach. But I’m laughing by the reference that you’re making because every time someone tells me, oh, your name is so beautiful, I know that what they really mean is that, oh, your name is very unusual. I’ve never heard such a name.
Hal Weitzman: Well, it is beautiful. It means a doe in Hebrew.
Ayelet Fishbach: Of course, it’s beautiful, yes. But it’s the same when someone tells you that what you are wearing is so unique and beautiful, you think, oh, I’m probably wearing the wrong color here or some very unusual type.
Hal Weitzman: You look colorful today. Yeah, right.
Ayelet Fishbach: Yeah, right. Yeah, exactly.
Hal Weitzman: Ayelet, it’s been such fun talking to you today. I feel like we could elaborate on this research for a long, long time and maybe signal to our listeners that it was so important, which it is. But for the moment, we’re going to end this podcast here. Thank you so much for your time.
Ayelet Fishbach: Thanks.
Hal Weitzman: That’s it for this episode of the Chicago Booth Review Podcast. It was produced by Josh Stunkel, and I’m Hal Weitzman. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and please do leave us a 5-star review. And for more insights from Chicago Booth faculty, visit us online at chicagobooth.edu/review. Thanks for listening—until next time.
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