Computer biased. E-mail may make it harder for us to let go of our stereotypes.

Reading Is Believing

A recent ad for a phone company calling card offered a challenge: "Just try whispering sweet nothings in an e-mail." But murmuring endearments is not the only difficulty e-mail presents. According to a new study, the medium may help stereotypes persist.

E-mail has been touted as a "blind" medium that disregards race, gender, and other stereotypes. But because e-mail lacks social cues such as tone of voice, some researchers have speculated that it can actually cause people to hold onto their prejudices. If one person considers another person stupid, for example, an e-mail exchange between the two will likely do little to change the writer's mind.

To test this, Nicholas Epley, a psychologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois, and colleagues paired up 60 college students. Each participant was given a fake biographical sketch of the other, including information about intelligence and a photograph that depicted either a well-dressed or disheveled person. Participants then interviewed their partners either by e-mail or phone, using six assigned questions, such as, "If you had the opportunity to meet one U.S. President, either alive or dead, who would it be and why?" To ensure that responses given by phone and e-mail were identical, the researchers transcribed the phone responses and used these for the e-mail responses as well.

Reaching out and touching someone does indeed have its advantages, the researchers report this month in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Regardless of their initial notions about the person at the other end, students who spoke over the phone tended to rate each other as being equally intelligent after their conversation was finished. Via e-mail, however, students held onto their first impressions, continuing to assume their partners had substandard intelligence, for example, if that's what the biographical sketch indicated.

"E-mail is good for conveying pure content but terrible for communicating any kind of subtleties," says Epley, whose team also found similar results when testing notions about shy and outgoing personalities.

This report is "quite clever" in its "use of modern [technology] to study how stereotype works," says Sara Kiesler, a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. But she cautions that real-life situations may produce different results because people are not usually given biographical information about strangers before e-mailing them. And some believe that the study does not completely rule out the use of e-mail to communicate subtleties. "It would be interesting to examine ... if long-term interaction through e-mail overrides the stereotypes," says Bernadette Park, a psychologist at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Related sites
Epley's home page
Kiesler's home page
Park's home page