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Cardiff test makes imitation the sincerest form of understanding

11 February 2011

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

A new method developed by Cardiff University 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.

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."


Notes to Editors

For more information please contact:
Professor Harry Collins
Cardiff School of Social Sciences
Cardiff University
T: 02920 874 047

Stephen Rouse,
Public Relations Office,
Cardiff University.
029 2087 5596

Cardiff University
Cardiff University is recognised in independent government assessments as one of Britain’s leading teaching and research universities and is a member of the Russell Group of the UK’s most research intensive universities. Among its academic staff are two Nobel Laureates, including the winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Medicine, University President Professor Sir Martin Evans.
Founded by Royal Charter in 1883, today the University combines impressive modern facilities and a dynamic approach to teaching and research. The University’s breadth of expertise in research and research-led teaching encompasses: the humanities; the natural, physical, health, life and social sciences; engineering and technology; preparation for a wide range of professions; and a longstanding commitment to lifelong learning. Three major new Research Institutes, offering radical new approaches to neurosciences and mental health, cancer stem cells and sustainable places were announced by the University in 2010.

Cardiff School of Social Sciences

Cardiff School of Social Sciences is one of the largest interdisciplinary Social Science Centres in the UK. Its growing international reputation was recognized in the most recent government assessment of the quality of research in British universities which placed it first in a table that measured "research power". Its research environment was evaluated as "world leading". Research activities are configured around seven research themes: Crime ad Justice; Education and the Knowledge Economy; Culture and Identities; Globalisation, Work and Labour; Health and Social Welfare; Knowledge Science and Technology; and Innovations in Social Research. These themes bring together research staff and one of the UK’s largest groups of research students.
Teaching is research led and also reflects the School’s inter-disciplinary focus, built around degrees in sociology, educational, social policy, criminology and social work. Undergraduate and postgraduate students are taught about the latest ideas by internationally recognised scholars who are themselves shaping the future of their respective fields. The School plays a major role in fostering public debate and policy development at regional, national and international levels. Staff act as advisers to the Welsh Assembly Government, Westminster and European parliaments as well as a wide range of national and international organisations.