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Imitation - the sincerest form of understanding?

11 February 2011

Professor Harry CollinsProfessor Harry Collins

Could you fool someone into thinking you were a different gender, or race, or religion?

A new method developed at Cardiff uses this challenge to assess how far different social groups understand one another.

The method is related to the "Turing Test", developed to see if humans could tell whether they were talking to a computer or not. A judge, for example from an ethnic minority, asks a series of online questions to two unseen strangers. One is from the same group, the other from the ethnic majority. Both try to answer the questions in a way that will convince the judge they are members of the minority group.

The Cardiff team, led by Professor Harry Collins of the School of Social Sciences, has already trialled the identity tests successfully in Wales. Now, a major European grant will allow them to test attitudes towards religion, ethnicity, gender and sexuality across Europe and beyond.

The tests have already revealed that members of minority groups are much better at pretending to be from the majority than vice-versa. Professor Collins explained: "The test measures how much people have absorbed the culture and language of other groups. Minority groups seem to observe and understand the habits of the majority group in much more detail. For example, we found that active Christians found it easy to pretend to be non-religious whereas judges were less easily fooled by non-churchgoers pretending to be active Christians. It is surprisingly difficult to mimic being an active Christian; it appears to be easier to pretend to be a homosexual."

The method can also track how social understanding changes over time. Professor Collins said: "If we had developed this method in the 1950s, heterosexual people would not have been successful at pretending to be homosexual, as there was little knowledge of the lifestyle. Homosexuals, however, would have been very good at pretending to be straight – as it was what many of them had to do anyway. Now, with greater understanding and cultural awareness, heterosexuals do a better job of imitating homosexual responses."

The team has just been awarded £1.85M (€2.2.6M) from the European Research Council to expand their research over the next five years. The regions to be compared are Scandinavia, Western Europe, Central Europe and Southern Europe. North and South America are set to be included in the final year. The award is the first ERC Advanced Grant to be made to Cardiff.

Professor Collins said: "If the test is robust enough to measure different regions and change over time, then it has a lot of potential. It will show us how various groups are integrating, how regions differ in their attitudes and how those attitudes evolve. It will also have a lot to tell us about power balances. For example, the black slave population in the 19th Century USA had to understand white society just to survive, whereas white society had no need to understand the black population. Our test could show us where power lies in today’s society."

Closing dates for the current call for ERC Advanced Grants will be this spring. For further information, please contact Eevi Laukkanen, European Officer, Research and Commercial Division at or extension 70114.

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