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Remember vuvuzelas? What your opinion of them reveals about you

By Andrew Winner, NBCNews.com contributor

We all remember vuvuzelas, right? At the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, the omnipresent noisemakers gave the soccer stadiums an ambient sound that was charming -- or maddening, depending on your perspective. Actually, so many World Cup viewers complained about the noise that the several broadcasters worldwide adjusted their audio filters to drown out the sound many compared to a swarm of bees.

Using the vuvuzela as an example, recent research out of Boston puts forth an interesting hypothesis that may shed more light on prejudicial thinking. As social psychology PhD student Sarah Gaither writes in a paper published in International Review for the Sociology of Sport, perhaps there was “more to the pervasive anti-vuvuzela sentiment than sim­ple auditory irritation.”

Gaither’s research at Tufts University found a correlation between attitudes toward the vuvuzela and attitudes toward racial minorities. While the usual disclaimers apply (correlation is not causation, etc.), the outcomes of the study could be considered foundational groundwork into the concept of ingroup/outgroup perceptions and symbolic racism.

“There are all kind of group compositions we have the world (political, religious, etc.) and a lot of times people like to claim that race and national identity—being from one country and not another—are not playing a role in these controversies,” Gaither said over the phone from Boston. “Our study at least shows the very basic, preliminary evidence that it might be slightly inaccurate to think that our national identity is not playing a role in these controversies.”

During the World Cup, Gaither surveyed 123 white Americans about their feelings toward the vuvuzela and compared that with their views on racial minorities, including Latinos and African Americans. What she found was that those who didn’t like the sound of the vuvuzela also had less positive views of racial minorities and a more general lack of openness to new things.

So if you don’t like the sound of a vuvuzela, does that mean you’re a xenophobe? Not necessarily. Gaither is quick to note that was not the purpose of the study. Instead, Gaither and her co-author, associate professor Samuel R. Sommers of Tufts, wanted to see if attitudes in worldwide controversies sometimes have deeper roots.

The idea for the study came to Gaither as she noticed the growing discussion over the vuvuzela trumpet during the World Cup. Made originally from the horn of a kudu or other antelope, the vuvuzela has been used all over Africa for a variety of purposes, such as the announcement of tribal meetings. However, the persistent blowing of the vuvuzela’s plastic, mass-produced descendant caused an audible drone during every match of the 2010 World Cup.

“As a social psychologist, I focus on intergroup relations,” Gaither said. “When the World Cup first started, I noticed two main things: First, it was the first World Cup hosted on the African continent, which I thought was a big deal on its own. Second, the controversy surrounding the use of these vuvuzela trumpets, much of which was coming from Westernized nations—the United States and Europe.”

“[This phenomenon] … made me wonder if all this controversy was not necessarily only linked to the fact that the vuvuzelas created a noise that bothered people but moreso linked to this idea of ingroup/outgroup perceptions that we sometimes see in sports, such as soccer.”

In her paper, Gaither theorizes that the outcry over vuvuzela could have been an episode of symbolic racism—racism’s more subtle, insidious cousin. While soccer continues to struggle with racism, specifically anti-black racism—United States national team forward Jozy Altidore was subjected to racist chants while playing for his club team in Holland recently—Gaither believes a better understanding and awareness of one's ingroup and outgroup perceptions could help mitigate some forms of intergroup conflict and racial bias.

The paper was published in the February issue of the International Review for the Sociology of Sport