Cognitive Daily

[originally posted on February 2, 2006]

In connection to Monday’s posting, Other-race faces: Why do they seem different?, I thought readers would be interested in a post from early last year concerning implicit attitudes on race. The link to the original post is above if you would like to see previous comments.

Twelve years ago, Greta and I were awakened by a rattling on the door of our Bronx apartment. It was about three A.M.; our children were asleep in the next room. “What should I do?” Greta whispered to me. She had woken first and was holding the deadbolt on the door locked so the intruder couldn’t get in.

“Call the police,” I whispered, and took hold of the lock. I ventured a peek through our peephole. I could see only the grizzled razor stubble of a man who was clearly shorter than I was. He continued to struggle with the door. He was making progress picking our lock — I had to forcefully resist to keep the lock from turning. As I heard Greta talking with the 911 operator on the phone in the other room, I grew bolder. “Who’s there?” I asked, in as gruff and aggressive a voice as I could manage. As soon as he realized there was someone in the apartment, he was gone.

About 30 seconds later, the police appeared at our door. They had been less than a block away when they received the dispatcher’s call, had already searched the stairwells, and found no one. We told them our story, and they asked for a description. I told them about the man’s height, and the razor stubble. “Did you notice anything else,” the officer asked.

“No,” I responded.

“What about race — was he black?”

As I gave my reply: “no,” I could see an expression of perplexed astonishment crossing the officer’s face. Was it possible that the burglar had walked right past the police, and they had assumed this couldn’t be the guy, since he was white? I’ll never know the answer, because the police didn’t say anything more to me about race. They never caught the intruder.

Let’s suppose he actually had walked right by the offender: could we then say that this police officer was racist? After all, he was probably playing the odds — it’s likely that there were more black criminals than white criminals in our area at that time. He never expressed an explicit racial bias to me: he was simply trying to obtain an accurate description of the perpetrator.

A team of researchers at Harvard University have developed another measure of bias, which has been widely reported in the popular press: Project Implicit. As the name of the project suggests, it seeks to measure “implicit attitudes” — biases that people don’t express overtly. The method has been used to measure all sorts of bias: gender, age, even science versus humanities classes. But not surprisingly, racial biases have caught the lion’s share of the attention: a recent article in U.S. News and World Report, for example, suggests ways to counter implicit racial biases. The libertarian blogger “Winterspeak” takes a dim view of implicit bias research, suggesting that such biases are merely the result of rational decisions based on knowledge such as “blacks are more likely to commit crimes.”

But what about when our “knowledge” about racial differences isn’t true? I had a humbling moment a few months ago when I admitted on Cognitive Daily that I was surprised that African American kids are less likely to do drugs or consume alcohol than white kids. How much real knowledge do most people have about racial differences? Could knowledge really be the sole motivator of implicit bias?

Andrew Scott Baron and Mahzarin Banaji recently conducted a study that offers some tentative answers. They gave their racial implicit bias test to white middle class kids aged 6, 10, as well as adults. You can try the test for yourself at Project Implicit, but here’s a quick summary of how it works. First, you’re shown pictures of black faces or white faces: the task is to press a button as quickly as possible when you you see each face (E for a black face or I for a white face). Next you’re shown a set of words, some good and some bad (love, joy, friend, hate, vomit, bomb), and again, you’re asked to press a designated key for each type. Finally, the tasks are combined: “When you see a black face or a good word, press the E key” and “When you see a white face or a bad word, press the I key.” Then the tasks are reversed, so good words are associated with white faces and bad words are associated with black faces. Reaction times are measured, and when a particular association results in a faster response time, then participants are said to have an implicit attitude prefering that association.

In this case, the test was modified for the smallest children so that instead of words appearing on the screen, recorded words were played for them. Here are the results:

i-a5e77c4a6e52c162666b6ae31d3972fe-implicit.gif

For every age group, the association of white faces with good words was stronger than the association of black faces with good words: an implicit bias for white faces over black faces. The bias must have formed before the age of six, and is undiminished in adulthood. To make sure everyone understood the task, a similar test was given to measure preference for insects versus flowers. Everyone except six-year-old boys said they preferred the flowers, but when the preference was measured with the implicit task, even the boys showed an implicit bias for flowers.

But Baron and Banaji didn’t stop with measuring implicit preferences. They also performed an explicit preference task, in which participants were asked overtly whether they preferred a white face or a black face. Here are the results:

i-6a4ae11b1d0676157299a5c017a00d24-implicit2.gif

Unlike the implicit task, these results do change over time, with each age group showing a significant difference from the other groups, and adults showing an equal preference for black and white faces. Though the implicit biases remain until adulthood, explicit biases appear to have been extinguished.

This data certainly is compatible with the idea that people can claim they are “not racist,” when their actions appear to contradict that notion. But what of Winterspeak’s criticism: “The Implicit Project implicitly assumes that any differentiation between blacks and whites is racist”? That’s a difficult notion to defend. Winterspeak offers no data in support of her/his claim, while Project Implicit can demonstrate that people’s actions differ from their words. There’s no mention of racism at all in Baron and Banaji’s report, or in Banaji’s quotes in the U.S. News article.

Worst of all, when people justify racial discrimination based on “knowledge” of racial differences, they are making two assumptions: that their knowledge of the stereotype is correct, and that the individual in question conforms to the stereotype. In three cases, (inaccurate stereotype, individual doesn’t conform to stereotype, or both) their judgement is not only incorrect, but immoral. In the last case — assuming the person doesn’t know for certain whether the individual he or she discriminates against conforms to the stereotype — it is merely immoral.

Isn’t it better to accurately know what your implicit biases are, and to try to adjust your behavior accordingly?

Baron, A.S., & Banaji, M.R. (2006). The development of implicit attitudes: Evidence of race evaluations from ages 6 and 10 and adulthood. Psychological Science, 17(1), 53-58.

Comments

  1. #1 BlogReader
    June 27, 2007

    Was it possible that the burglar had walked right past the police, and they had assumed this couldn’t be the guy, since he was white?

    Or was it possible that they were just alerted to a prowler in the area that was black and wanted to confirm? Who knows?

  2. #2 Ryan Fox
    June 27, 2007

    That’s interesting… I participated (for school credit) in a study that was almost exactly the same, except with pictures of people who had/didn’t have alcohol in their hands instead of black/white people.

  3. #3 RyanG
    June 27, 2007

    An unsought bias that could throw everything off: It seemed difficult to select ‘good’ words with my left hand, regardless of whether I was matching them with white, black, fat, thin, USA, Canada, young, old, science, or arts. There’s just something… sinister… about it.

  4. #4 acm
    June 27, 2007

    Isn’t it better to accurately know what your implicit biases are, and to try to adjust your behavior accordingly?

    I think so. Although obviously you can’t adjust your very quick (i.e., instinctive) reactions, as measured in those tiny reaction times, but you can pause, reflect, and reexamine your logic/reflexes to make sure they’re not self-justifying of bias . . .

    (and you can, you know, try to increase your exposure to various folks to desensitize yourself to “otherness” in general.)

  5. #5 Tony Jeremiah
    June 27, 2007

    Isn’t it better to accurately know what your implicit biases are, and to try to adjust your behavior accordingly?

    I think so. Although obviously you can’t adjust your very quick (i.e., instinctive) reactions, as measured in those tiny reaction times, but you can pause, reflect, and reexamine your logic/reflexes to make sure they’re not self-justifying of bias . . .

    (and you can, you know, try to increase your exposure to various folks to desensitize yourself to “otherness” in general.)
    ***********************************************************

    A study by Plant and Peruche (2005) seemed to address this issue quite well in the context of police officers and (split-second) decisions in shooting criminal suspects.
    The abstract is as follows:

    The current work examined police officers’ decisions to shoot Black and White criminal suspects in a computer simulation. Responses to the simulation revealed that upon initial exposure to the program, the officers were more likely to mistakenly shoot unarmed Black compared with unarmed White suspects. However, after extensive training with the program, in which the race of the suspect was unrelated to the presence of a weapon, the officers were able to eliminate this bias. These findings are discussed in terms of their implications for the elimination of racial biases and the training of police officers.

    Reference

    Plant, E.A., & Peruche, M.B. (2005). The consequences of race for police officers’ responses to criminal suspects.
    Psychological Science, 16, 180-183.

  6. #6 Ddkathrens77
    June 27, 2007

    Growing up in rural Kansas, surrounded by very explicit racial bias from my parents and community, I resolved not to let myself become “prejudiced”.

    That’s pretty easy to say when you might see one or two black people in your whole life, as was the case with me at the time I went to attend a small junior college in Highland KS.

    I found myself sharing a dorm unit with 4 black athletic scholarship students from the East Coast. Talk about culture shock! I quickly found out that I wasn’t as “non-prejudiced” as I believed.

    I grew up in a house where everything was neat as a pin — in a community where everyone else kept their houses neat as a pin — and unconsciously internalized a value for cleanliness and neatness.

    The first week, I cleaned up the kitchenette about three times in a row, only to have my dorm mates totally trash it again within the hour.

    After that I got a hot plate and an ice box and did all my cooking in my own room, washing my dishes in the wash basin. I essentially abandoned the common area.

    I concluded that black people were just messy by nature, failing to realize that I was probably as far to one end of a bell curve as they were to the opposite end.

    What I’m trying to point out here is that those implicit values are lurking in all of us. I agree that one should find out what they are ahead of time, and learn to recognize them when they rear their ugly heads.

  7. #7 dkathrens77
    June 27, 2007

    In response to Tony Jeremiah’s post: “However, after extensive training with the program, in which the race of the suspect was unrelated to the presence of a weapon, the officers were able to eliminate this bias.”

    Very effective indeed. Now the police shoot everybody, race notwitstanding, whether they have a weapon or not.

  8. #8 spacenookie
    June 27, 2007

    The police must have been pretty disappointed to get there within 30 seconds of your call and not catch somebody red-handed. If the police had nabbed a suspect, would you have been able to pick him out of a line-up of other similarly dressed, stubbled, not-black men?

  9. #9 roseindigo
    June 28, 2007

    This conversation implies that there is prejudice involved. There may be, but there may also NOT be. It makes total sense to me when the police ask for a description to include race as a FACT. It would be silly for them to go looking for an old grizzled gray-haired man with blue eyes when the criminal was actually an old grizzled black man with brown eyes—and a waste of time and resources.

    As for this comment: “I agree that one should find out what they are ahead of time, and learn to recognize them when they rear their ugly heads.” from the person who shared quarters with four black roomies. What does neatness have to do with race? And what is there to recognize if you happen to be a neatnick and your roomies are slobs? Seems to me that you could just as easily have ended up with four white roomies that were slobs and felt exactly the same way.

    This concentration on racial prejudice in the U.S.A. is for the birds. Most of the time it isn’t race at all, but BEHAVIOR and SOCIAL CUSTOMS that clash. But if you say anything negative about any minority person, even if the behavior is abominable, you are labeled as a racist. TOTALLY ABSURD!

  10. #10 hej
    June 29, 2007

    Roseindigo: The problem is when you start extrapolating from those four slobs to “blacks”. And with all the talk about “races” that are going on that is way too easy.

  11. #11 Eric
    June 30, 2007

    Interesting, though I wonder how accurate the results of the Project Implicit study are. I took the black vs. white preference test, and to the best of my knowledge, I have no preference – I have a pretty neutral view of all races. To my surprise, the test indicated that I have a slight preference for white faces as opposed to black faces. One explanation I came up with was the fact that the study conditions the participant to associate “good” words with the left side and “bad” words with the left side; the test measures your preference based on the speed at which you associate, and, after two rounds of having white faces and good words on one side, it required some thought in order to now associate the words or faces with the opposite side.

    To test this hypothesis as to how my results could have been potentially skewed, I took the Presidential preference test, in which the participant is shown photographs of George W. Bush and photographs of Abraham Lincoln. Like most Americans, my attitudes towards president Lincoln are generally positive – especially when compared to my feelings for current president Bush. When I took the test, however, it was noted that I had a “strong preference for George W. Bush” in comparison to Lincoln, which gave me a chuckle, considering my far-Left political preferences and my hate for Dubya.

    Perhaps the results are a bit off – never the less, extremely intriguing. Especially the way in which, as we age, our explicit preferences change.

  12. #12 roseindigo
    July 2, 2007

    hej, I agree with you. However, a lot of racial prejudice may just be as a result of all the talking about it which is so prevalent and obtrusive in our lives. Naturally when we’ve been reminded as often as we are in this country about race and accused of racial prejudice for any little comment, the first thing that pops into our minds may be “uh oh, I must be prejudiced” when it ain’t necessarily so. You may actually just dislike someone’s bahavior. The above person with four black roomies may just as well have had four white roomies that were rich, and he could then say “rich people are slobs”.

    It’s often a matter of preconditioning and lazy minds that jump to conclusions that are not valid.

  13. #13 Ompus
    July 2, 2007

    Is the second graph showing that six-year olds are more “racist” than adults?

    As I understand them, the two graphs show that the implicit preference for people of similar appearance is constant and “racist.” The good news is the second graph… Adults apparently learn to temper their implicitly racist attitudes to a achieve an unbiased view of the world.

    Put differently, can’t it be reasonably argued that people are implicitly racist, sexist and homophobic, but that we, with minds that reach beyond the primal, nonethless strive to treat ALL people with equal dignity?

  14. #14 Sumiran_psych
    July 7, 2007

    The graph shows that 6yr olds ‘seemingly’ are more biased..well.. the reason behind it strongly has to be..because by the age of 6, though the brain is completly developed…but the cognition adaptability is not so strong or high.. HENCE they wud be more biased towards someone who SEEMED or LOOKED more like him/herself. Even i guess same goes for 10yrs ones too.

  15. #15 Hopefully Anonymous
    July 15, 2007

    It seems to weirdly go against what we know about race to pretend that there are only “white faces” and “black faces”. Isn’t phenotype a spectrum? What did the “black faces” look like -Jessica Beal? Vin Diesel? Terrence Howard? Whoopie Goldberg? What did the “white faces” look like? Were any Sicilian? North African? Puerto Rican? Studies that take this white face/black face type approach to me seem less about the empirical search for truth that nontransparent participation in mass socialization projects.

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