Combating Implicit Racial Bias

March 7, 2014

This feature is part of a new RSF blog series, Work in Progress, which highlights some of the ongoing research of our current class of Visiting Scholars.

Though by many accounts the U.S. is becoming a more egalitarian society in terms of racial attitudes, unconscious biases still linger. Though people may be less likely to admit to these biases in public, the persistence of racial prejudice continues to shape not only our interpersonal interactions, but also the way in which resources are distributed in society. Stacey Sinclair, Associate Professor of Psychology & African American Studies at Princeton and a current RSF Visiting Scholar, studies the connections between people’s implicit prejudices and their interpersonal interactions, and maps out how these interactions on the micro level translate to larger societal attitudes about race and ethnicity.

In a new interview with the Foundation, Sinclair discussed some of her recent research on implicit prejudice and offered solutions for rectifying some of the inequalities caused by these unconscious biases. To read more about her work during her time in residence, click here.

Q. Your current research investigates implicit prejudice, specifically implicit racial prejudice. What is implicit prejudice and how is it measured in a lab setting?

Implicit prejudice is thought to be a form of prejudice that’s less available to conscious awareness and conscious control. In the lab we capture that by using reaction time measures. For example, researchers will flash on a screen either a white or African American face, or names associated with blacks or whites, then look at the degree to which those initial primes facilitate the recognition of negative and positive stimuli. The thought is that seeing an African American face makes it easier for the test subject to recognize negative things and harder for them to recognize positive things, showing that subjects have more negative associations with African Americans than they do with whites. All of these differences are at the millisecond level, so people can’t strategically present their responses the way they can when they’re filling out a questionnaire or being asked to self-report their biases.

Q. What updates have your team made to the existing body of research on the subject?

It was once thought that implicit prejudice was stable—in other words, once you give subjects the test and reveal their implicit prejudices, there is little that they can do about those unconscious beliefs. However, one of the first things our research team showed is that implicit prejudice is actually quite changeable, and fluctuates based on immediately preceding interpersonal interactions. So, for example, for test subjects who interacted with a black experimenter as opposed to a white experimenter, their levels of prejudice toward African Americans in the test were lower. We determined that this occurs because when people interact with someone and assume they’re more egalitarian (and as a society we tend to assume that blacks are more egalitarian than whites) then their implicit prejudice will be lower. It isn’t lower because they’re consciously controlling it—but rather, because people have a fundamental desire to get along with others and be in sync with those around them.

Q. You outlined both a “contagion” theory and a “connection” theory of implicit prejudice. Could you give a brief rundown of the difference between the two, and how they play out in group settings?

The contagion perspective is the idea that we “catch” the views of those around us, including their prejudices, because we want to get along with them. But our research team is also now investigating the “connection” perspective, which posits that people unconsciously select their relationships and social networks based on their levels of implicit prejudice. There’s an existing body of literature that shows that people who have higher implicit prejudice have a harder time getting along with outgroup members—for example, if you have high implicit prejudice towards African Americans, you sit a little further away from them, you don’t have many black friends, and you’re more uncomfortable engaging with them overall. Our team built on this by looking at whether levels of implicit prejudice in whites also shape the way they interact with other whites. Our research shows that people who are high in implicit prejudice are attracted to other people with similar levels of implicit prejudice. Whites who have a lot of implicit anti-black prejudice are less likely to want to be friends with whites who have black friends or even whites who act friendly toward black strangers.

The next thing we’re examining is how these processes work together and how they build on each other. So on one hand people select into relationships that are consistent with their implicit prejudices, and then once they’re around like-minded people, they’re further “catching” each others’ ideas, which means that the social networks of egalitarian people and the networks of non-egalitarian people become more and more polarized.

Q. Finally, if certain prejudices we hold are unconscious, how can we go about modifying them? How can teachers and employers, for example, counteract the effects of their implicit biases in order to create more inclusive and equitable spaces for learning and working?

Just knowing about implicit bias doesn’t necessarily lower it. What I tell people is that they should start by assuming they hold some implicit prejudices, and then restructure their social interactions and the way they make judgments to mitigate whatever bias they have. In the context of teaching, for example, I encourage people to grade blind—have students put their names on the back of their essays, rather the front. When you’re teaching a small class, create a system for calling on people in order to make sure you call on people of different races the same amount. Another thing people can do to combat implicit prejudice is to wear their egalitarianism on their sleeve. If you have anti-racist beliefs, make sure you’re open about them. Those around you will “catch” those views, and then in turn, the people around them will “catch” those views, too.

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