Very few of us can avoid stereotyping others. When we’re actively trying to avoid racial stereotyping, we often end up looking ridiculous. But the very fact that we can try to avoid it suggests that there’s something more to racial stereotypes than a “stereotype center” in the brain. If stereotyping was completely automatic, we’d be no more able to resist stereotypes than we are able to stop seeing.
So if we can try to resist stereotyping, why doesn’t resisting always work? The article I just linked points to a study showing that people — even police officers — are more likely to mistakenly “shoot” a black person holding a harmless object instead of a weapon, compared to a white person.
And there’s been a vast array of research on implicit attitudes — showing people are more likely to link images of black people with negative words than to link those words to white people — even when they show little explicit racial bias. But again, the question remains: Why are these biases sometimes controllable, and sometimes automatic? A recent study by Keith Payne begins to offer some answers.
Payne gave a series of tests to 76 non-black volunteers. One test was the implicit attitude test mentioned above: viewers saw pictures of faces or words, and then had to respond in different ways: For example, to press a button if the face was white or the word was good. The key was when white faces were paired with bad words, or black faces were paired with good words: if you respond slower to good words paired with a black face, then you have an implicit bias against black faces. The next test was similar to the “shooting” task I described above. Finally, they were given a word evaluation test, where words and faces were presented simultaneously, and again, participants had to identify the words were “good” or “bad.” If you’re slower to identify good words presented at the same time as black faces, you have a bias.
The last test (actually given first in the experiment) was seemingly unrelated: All viewers had to do was identify a letter flashed on the screen — either an H or a T, every time. But in the first half of the test, a circle appeared in the same location prior to the letter appearing. In the second half, viewers were told that the circle would appear on the opposite side of the screen. In order to see the letter, they would have to look away from the flashing circle.
On all three tests of stereotype bias, Payne found the usual results: non-black viewers appear to implicitly associate black faces with negative words and weapons.
But what Payne wanted to see is if there was a correlation between scores on the letter-identification test and the other tests of automatic bias. If there was, then this would suggest that the same mechanism which helps us to look away from a cue is employed in avoiding stereotyped behavior. The letter-identification task may be a better measure of our ability to control our actions (executive function), because in principle none of the participants should be any more biased than the others. So was there a relationship between the scores on this test and the others? Absolutely. There were small positive correlations between bias scores on both the weapon identification task (r=.35) and the word identification task (r=.19), and the scores on the letter-identification test.
But this experiment had some problems: First, the correlations are quite small. It seems that some other factor must be involved. And second, all the measures Payne used involve reaction times. Perhaps the test is nothing more than a measure of how quickly participants respond to computer stimuli. Payne addresses these issues in a second experiment; we’ll discuss that research next week.
Payne, B.K. (2005). Conceptualizing control in social cognition: How executive functioning modulates the functioning of automatic stereotyping. Personality and Social Psychology, 89(4), 488-503.