The Partisan Brain

April 3, 2017

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

Over the last few years, policymakers have been paying increasing attention to the problem of implicit bias, or the unconscious snap judgments that individuals make about others, especially regarding identities like race and gender. There is evidence that implicit bias helps perpetuate social inequalities in a number of ways, ranging from employers’ hiring decisions to law enforcement’s use of lethal force against African Americans. Yet, if many discriminatory stereotypes and attitudes are unconscious, how do we ameliorate them?

At the Russell Sage Foundation, Visiting Scholar Jay Van Bavel (New York University) is analyzing the social dynamics that influence implicit intergroup bias. Using large-scale data and a series of experiments, he is studying how many factors—from the history of slavery to individuals’ brain functions—affect the implicit biases that people hold toward minority groups. He will also explore the extent to which implicit biases can be altered, as well as the role of social institutions in mitigating these biases.  

In an interview with the foundation, Van Bavel explained how political orientation, race, and other group identifications can affect individuals’ implicit biases, and how to reduce some of the the biases that reinforce social inequality.

Q. We tend to think of what we see in front of us as objective reality. Yet, your ongoing research shows that how we identify ourselves, including what groups we belong to, can shape our visual perceptions. What are some examples of how two people looking at the same images could see different things, based on their political ideology, racial identification, or other factors?

Van Bavel: All we need to do is turn on the TV or read the news to see how people looking at the same images can see different things. A striking example of this was the debate about the crowd size at President Trump's inauguration. Press secretary Sean Spicer called it the "largest audience to witness an inauguration, period." But photos clearly showed that Obama's inauguration crowd in 2009 was much larger.

Remarkably, Trump's own supporters believed Spicer’s claim, even when they were confronted with photographic evidence to the contrary. My lab and many others have been studying this issue in the lab for some time and we've found extensive evidence that people distort their interpretations of reality to fit their ideology or group identity. For instance, we've found that New Yorkers who feel threatened by illegal immigrants believe Mexico City is much closer than people who don't feel threatened. The bottom line is that people perceive the world through group-colored glasses

Q. You’ve also studied implicit racial bias among law enforcement. How does a suspect’s race affect the way police officers may perceive the situation and surroundings and subsequently decide whether to use lethal force?

With support from the Russell Sage Foundation, we are currently studying whether these misperceptions might have negative consequences for the legal system. If police see black suspects as closer than white suspects, this might lead them to pull the trigger a little faster.

We've found some evidence for this in the lab and we are now analyzing publicly available records of police shootings to see if operates the same way in the real world. If so, then police training might need to be revised to deal with biases in our perceptions. I know that eyewitness lineup identification can be biased against Black suspects because people from other racial groups think "they all look alike". Perhaps decisions to shoot might suffer from some of the same limitations. 

Q. Implicit bias and stereotypes related to race and gender are often difficult to combat. Are there ways that people’s automatic reactions can be modified?

There is a growing awareness about implicit bias in this country. Thankfully, scientists have identified several strategies for reducing bias. My colleagues and I have found pretty good evidence that putting people on mixed-race teams is an effective way to reduce implicit bias, and we have seen the impact on brain activity and other forms of discrimination.

Simply flipping a coin and assigning people to a group can and creating a sense of shared identity with a diverse group of people. The major challenge is sustaining a common in-group identity. This is why I strongly recommend that organizations and leaders focus on taking bias out of the process, rather than the person.


RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal of original empirical research articles by both established and emerging scholars.


The Russell Sage Foundation offers grants and positions in our Visiting Scholars program for research.


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