Psychologists find a simple way to reduce racial prejudice

Racially biased judgments can be effectively reduced by changing the way that people think about group memberships they share with those against whom they are biased, according to a study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

A wealth of research has shown that biased judgments about members of racial minority groups often happen as an automatic reaction occurring within a fraction of a second. Prejudiced reactions that occur in this way are known as implicit biases. Because these reactions occur without thinking, people who hold them often do not think of themselves as being prejudiced. This makes implicit biases particularly difficult to eliminate, raising questions about how to make enduring social change possible.

A team of psychologists led by W. Anthony Scroggins, of the University of California, Santa Barbara, conducted a series of three experiments to investigate one potential approach to changing these biases. Research shows that, in addition to implicit negative biases against members of stigmatized groups (or “outgroups”), people also have implicit positive biases towards groups to which they themselves belong (or “ingroups”). The authors of this study examined whether these positive ingroup biases could erase the impact of negative outgroup bias on implicit prejudice.

All three experiments used a procedure called the Implicit Associations Test (IAT) to gauge implicit bias. The IAT measures differences in reaction time (gauged in fractions of seconds) taken to categorize faces (in this case, Black or White) into groups depending on whether they are paired with positive or negative sets of words. Typically, it takes slightly longer to categorize faces when a negatively stereotyped group is paired with pleasant words, or when a positively stereotyped group is identified with unpleasant ones.

In the first experiment, 146 White, Asian, and Latino undergraduate college students took an IAT with two different conditions. In the first, faces were identified only as Black or White. In the second, the same faces were identified as Black or White students attending the same college as the participants. Participants showed less implicit anti-Black bias in the second condition, in which they saw themselves as sharing membership in an important and positively-valued group with the Black people pictured.

The second experiment, which included 112 students, had the same basic design as the first, but added a third condition identifying faces as Black or White firefighters. Describing Black individuals as members of this positively perceived group to which the participants did not belong did not reduce implicit anti-Black bias. This appears to indicate that it was perceiving Black individuals as members of a shared ingroup, rather than simply seeing them as members of a positively valued group, that changed prejudiced responses in the first experiment.

The third experiment, including 141 students, was similar to the first except that instead of pleasant and unpleasant words, participants had to identify the logo of their own college or that of a rival. Participants were more readily able to categorize ingroup Black faces paired with their own logo (a symbol of ingroup membership), indicating that they formed a direct implicit association between Black faces and the ingroup under the right conditions.

“This research provides the first evidence of how and why categorization in terms of shared group memberships can reduce implicit bias,” Scroggins and his colleagues said.

The study authors conclude that their results might be used to develop interventions that help to reduce racial bias by identifying and highlighting shared ingroup categories between potentially biased individuals and the targets of that bias. They suggest that these techniques could one day be used to reduce inequalities in medical care employment that arise due to subtle but pervasive implicit biases on the part of health care providers and job interviewers.

Even fatal shootings of unarmed Black suspects might one day be reduced simply by finding ways of reminding White police officers of the group ties they may share with one another.