How would you feel if I said you are inherently biased against black people? While there are certainly individuals who are aware and perhaps even comfortable with their own racial prejudices, I’m going to assume that most of you reading this post would disagree with and possibly be offended by that statement. Unfortunately, according to several studies conducted on this topic, it turns out implicit bias may be unavoidable.
A few weeks ago, we discussed implicit versus explicit memories and how previous encounters with stimuli can shape our memories and beliefs. We learned that priming plays a significant role in what we find familiar or believe to be true. While this can be useful in some instances and may allow us to process stimuli and access stored information more efficiently, it can also be problematic when previous associations create harmful biases. During an episode of The Hidden Brain from March 16 called “The Mind of the Village,” Shankar Vedantam, along with psychologists from various universities, explore the problem of implicit social bias, how communities unconsciously shape individual minds, and what we can do to prevent our implicit biases from affecting our conscious behaviors.
Dr. Mahzarin Banaji, a professor at Harvard University, and Vedantam begin the episode discussing the Implicit Association Test (IAT). Banaji designed the IAT to measure an individual’s level of implicit bias. The IAT is a sorting exercise that requires faces of individuals to be grouped with other objects that hold either positive or negative associations. Banaji explains that the IAT works well because of our unconscious tendency to group related objects together. For instance, we would be faster at grouping “bread” with “butter” than we would be at grouping “bread” with “hammer.” This should sound familiar as we’ve discussed the effect of priming and repetition as it relates to recognition and memories in class extensively. However, instead of innocuous groupings of familiar pairs, the IAT has individuals sort black and white faces with words like heaven, hell, evil or love. In some trials, white faces are to be sorted with negative words and black faces with positive words. In other trials, this is reversed. What Banaji found is that the majority of test participants were faster at sorting black faces with negative words and white faces with positive words. This was true not only for white participants, but also for black participants and for Banaji herself.
(Sample faces used in the IAT)
Dr. Joshua Correll from the University of Colorado Boulder developed another way to test for implicit bias which was a bit more direct than the IAT. Correll designed a video game, called The Police Officer’s Dilemma, that required participants to assess and engage a potential threat. On a screen, a black or white man would appear holding an object. The object could be something harmless or it could be a gun. The test measured response times to both assess the threat and shoot the target as well as measuring whether the responses were correct or incorrect. Like the IAT, The Police Officer’s Dilemma found that people were faster both to associate black people with threats and to shoot black people. They were also more likely to make incorrect associations consistent with having implicit bias against black people.
(Sample images used in The Police Officer’s Dilemma)
While the data collected by Banaji and Correll can seem disheartening, there is a silver lining on the dark clouds. Interestingly, when Correll had police officers instead of students and laypeople take the test, he found that while the police officers showed the same levels of implicit bias in response times and mistakes when assessing threats, they were less likely to shoot the wrong person. He also found that things like lack of sleep and stress affected how well police officers controlled their implicit bias. This suggests that while we can’t change the implicit biases we possess, we can learn to control how we let those biases affect our behavior. By using cognitive resources and making a point to be aware of our biases, we can avoid making the mistakes that would be more likely if we relied on impulse and emotion. As we’ve discussed in class, engaging our “System 2” resources would allow us to combat the inescapable bias that drives our “System 1.”
I must admit that I was uncomfortable acknowledging that I might be vulnerable to implicit bias. However, based upon abundant research, this seems to exist in all of us, to some extent. Think about it for a minute …what color do you associate with death, evil, fear or hell? And what color do you associate with purity, heaven, peace or good? I can write a long list of black things with negative associations and white things with positive associations, many that I learned about as a young child. Whether we like it or not, at some point, society decided that black equaled bad and white equaled good. It’s unfortunate, but unavoidable that those associations carry over into how we react to other people. Consciously, we might strive to treat others equally and not judge people by the color of their skin. However, until we can change the world around us, we likely won’t be able to change the automatic biases that exist. What we can do, however, is admit that implicit bias exists, become aware of it and be prepared to control for its effects. Instead of pretending it isn’t there because it’s uncomfortable to talk about, we are better off addressing bias head on and saying, “I won’t let it determine how I behave.” It takes deliberate conscious effort, but maybe just as those associations became automatic after years of repetition, we can make our deliberately unbiased response automatic as well.
If you’re interested, you can take the IAT online. There are a number of IATs that measure various biases such as attractive vs. unattractive, black vs. white, thin vs. obese, old vs. young, etc. I’ve taken two so far and while neither test has shown me to have any preference for one group over another, I do find that just taking the tests made me more aware of my thoughts and behaviors. I also found it difficult to keep the responses and buttons straight on the test which does make me question its validity somewhat. However, the effect of confusing buttons and not being able to remember how to group objects should be consistent throughout the trials so I suspect it wouldn’t skew the results anyway.
Link to The Hidden Brain: The Mind of the Village podcast/transcript:
Link to the Implicit Association Test: