Biases against bicultural people: York U research reveals unique societal challenges

New research from York University found that even as those who belong to two different cultural groups in North America strive to be true to themselves and their cultural roots, they face social consequences when changing their behaviour to adapt and navigate different cultural situations.

Amy Muise

In the new paper published in Social and Personality Science, Alexandria West, a recent York PhD graduate working with Amy Muise, an assistant professor in the department of psychology in the Faculty of Health and York University Research Chair in Relationships and Sexuality, showed, across several experiments, how “frame switching,” or adapting to different cultural frames, is perceived negatively. The research shows that in North America, frame switching bicultural people are seen as inauthentic, and in turn, are seen as less likeable, less trustworthy and not as warm or competent compared to biculturals who do not frame switch.

“Most people hold multiple social identities, cultural or otherwise, and the different groups we affiliate with may have different norms and values,” says Muise. “When you have multiple cultural identities you might do things to adapt your behaviour to meet the cultural expectations of your different groups. You can imagine in some cultures the way you treat elders may be different from greetings to hugs, or even the clothing you wear on certain holidays. Speaking one language in one culture or how you celebrate cultural occasions can all be part of frame switching.”

Researchers defined biculturals as people who belong to at least two cultural groups and can include immigrants and their progeny, biracials and people who are immersed in multiple cultures. Previous research has found that frame switching helps biculturals gain acceptance and maintain relationships within each of their cultural groups, fostering better well-being. West and Muise found that frame switching by biculturals can be perceived as inauthentic to majority North Americans and this can have downstream social and relational consequences.

“The implications of the results of this research point to sources of conflict specifically, these perceived differences that we build up in our minds about people with multiple cultural backgrounds that make us behave in an ‘us versus them’ way,” says West. “We’re trying to shed light on what are these sources of bias that keep us from understanding each other and from being suspicious of each other. We also need to better understand how we can break away from external influences and better understand authenticity of people and their identities.”

In the first of three studies conducted, North American participants were randomly assigned to read and provide their impressions of one of three vignettes online: a) switching; where a person from two cultural groups changed behaviour depending on which cultural group they were with, b) no switching; the bicultural’s behaviour was the same no matter which group they were with and c) neutral; only the background information of a bicultural was provided, with no information on behaviour. Here, the analysis showed that participants saw the bicultural as less authentic when the frame switched than when the bicultural did not.

Study 2 replicated Study 1 but added information for participants that included a reason why the bicultural was changing their behaviour or frame switching. It was explained that they were not trying to deceive or manipulate others through this behaviour and instead were trying to be authentic to their dual identity. The results showed that this slightly mitigated participants’ perception of mistrust of the bicultural but not all negative perceptions were alleviated.

Study 3 looked at how frame switching by biculturals can impact romantic relationship prospects. Participants were led to believe they would see single men’s profiles from one or more cultural-niche dating sites. Instead, they only saw profiles created by the same bicultural highlighting different aspects of himself depending on the cultural context of the site. The analysis showed women viewing this profile formed less favourable impressions when the bicultural was frame switching and reduced participants’ attraction to him physically, and their endorsement of him as a dating partner.

“Most people hold multiple social identities, cultural or not,” says West. “More and more people are identifying as more than one culture at a time and that’s because they’re first or second-generation immigrants or they’re biracial or they’ve spent a long time in another culture and have become personally connected to it. All of these people who are naturally adapting through frame switching are facing these biases. We don’t as a culture have a good way of accommodating them mentally.”

Muise and West say as many nations become increasingly diverse, it is more important than ever to identify and break down these barriers to intercultural relations. Researchers add being bicultural can be challenging – not only must biculturals negotiate different cultural norms but they also face misunderstandings and discrimination from others.