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You are sitting in a waiting room when someone makes a racist comment about a black man who has just left. How would you respond?

Most people say they would feel upset and take action, but researchers at York University who put student volunteers in a similar situation found many reacted with indifference, even when the slur was as offensive as "clumsy nigger."

Many of the students reported feeling little emotional distress after hearing a white man say something denigrating about a black man who had bumped him on his way out of the room.

Minutes later, they were asked to choose a partner for a word comprehension test. The majority - 63 per cent - chose the racist white guy.

The results help explain why racism persists in our politically correct age, says York University psychologist Kerry Kawakami, the lead author of a paper published in today's edition of the journal Science.

People imagine they would be angry and punish a racist, she says, but in reality their response is far more muted. "When you actually put them in a situation in which they see an overtly racist act, they are not upset, generally, and they don't censure the racist. They don't respond negatively to them at all."

Forty-seven male and 73 female undergraduates took part in the experiment. None were black, but they came from a variety of backgrounds, including European, East Asian, South Asian and Middle Eastern.

Half were asked how they would react in a situation in which someone made a racist comment about blacks. The other half were put in that situation. One at a time, they were led into a room and seated. Two actors posing as participants were brought in, and the group was told they were waiting for a fourth person.

The black actor told the group he had left his cellphone in the hallway. On his way to get it, he gently bumped the white actor's leg with his foot. When he was gone, the white actor said "clumsy nigger" to a third of the students. Another third heard him say "Typical, I hate it when black people do that." For the other third, he made no comment at all.

Within minutes, the black actor was back with his cellphone. The researcher returned and asked the volunteers to fill out a questionnaire about how they were feeling.

They didn't report any emotional distress.

Then, the students were asked to choose a partner for work on a task involving anagrams. Sixty-three per cent of the students who had heard a racist comment picked the white man, compared with only 53 per cent of the students who didn't hear one.

Their reactions contrasted sharply with what the other students thought they would feel in the same situation.

They said they expected to experience deep distress, and most said they would not pick the white racist as a partner.

Dr. Kawakami and her graduate student, Francine Karmali, collaborated with University of British Columbia psychologist Elizabeth Dunn, whose work has shown that people overestimate how upset they will be in difficult situations.

"They vastly overestimate how upset they would feel in bad situations such as hearing a racial slur," Dr. Dunn says.

The students were told about the true nature of the experiment, and Dr. Kawakami said those who had chosen the racist as a partner were shocked.

"They tried to explain. It is a culturally inappropriate response, right? But the explanations didn't make sense."


Testing for racism


Situation A: Students were asked to predict how they would react if they heard someone make a racist comment.

Reaction: On a 1-to-9 scale, with 1 being low and 9 being high, they predicted their feelings of discomfort and anger would rate around 7.

Situation B: A separate group of students actually heard a racial slur.

Reaction: Their distress levels were much lower, around 4 on the same scale.