- How to Effectively Combat Unconscious Bias
How to Effectively Combat Unconscious Bias
Scientifically validated strategies that actually work
Over the last couple of years, many individuals and organizations have had their eyes opened to the need to proactively take steps to become anti-racist. This requires acknowledging and redressing bias. But before undertaking the challenge of combatting bias, the first question that begs answering is: What is bias?
Social psychological research has identified at least three distinct manifestations of racial bias: stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination.
Stereotyping vs. prejudice vs. discrimination
Stereotypes are beliefs about a group (e.g., Black people are good athletes; Asian people are bad drivers, etc.) whereas prejudice refers to negative feelings toward a group (e.g., I do not like Black/Asian people). Discrimination refers to different behaviors toward one group versus another group. Research has found that these three components of bias are only moderately correlated.
So, beliefs vs. feelings vs. behaviors. The goal is not to split hairs here. This distinction is important, not only conceptually, but also practically. Behaviors provide an escape hatch for people who are looking to avoid racial bias. Behaviors matter more than beliefs or feelings.
Let’s look at two examples.
Behaviors > biases
First, imagine that medical science definitively concludes that Brussels sprouts are a miracle vegetable. If you eat three servings per day, it will reduce your risk of ever developing cancer to zero. That’s the good news. The bad news is that you absolutely despise the taste of Brussels sprouts.
Does this mean that you can never reap the nutritional benefits of Brussels sprouts? Sure you can. All you have to do is eat them. Even though it may be challenging at first, due to the unpleasant taste, if you eat three servings per day, you will reap the nutritional benefits of Brussels sprouts. Your visceral reactions and your physical actions are not one and the same.
And if you eat Brussels sprouts often enough, your visceral orientation toward them will change, too. By exposing your taste buds to Brussels sprouts again and again—reconditioning them—you will actually acquire the taste. Using behaviors to override feelings is the ultimate “fake it ’til you make it.”
Now let’s look at a more socially relevant example. Imagine you are a taxi driver in New York City who has negative feelings toward Muslim people. While driving one day, you see a couple who appears to be Muslim standing in the cold rain attempting to hail a cab. Even though you might not be able to completely control the negative thoughts and feelings that pop into your head upon encountering a Muslim person, you can certainly control whether or not you pull over the taxi to offer them a ride. You can also control whether you are kind and respectful as you drive them to their destination, and whether you are gracious and hospitable as they exit.
In this case, that may be enough. The couple is not looking to build an intimate, communal relationship with you, so your “genuine” feelings may not matter. They are simply looking to get from Point A to Point B, and you can help them do that. Similar to Brussels sprouts, if you do that often enough, your negative attitudes toward Muslims will begin to dissipate.
To reduce implicit bias, increase exposure
If the realization that behaviors are often more important than attitudes is a good first step on your anti-racist journey, the next step is creating habits and practices that will slowly erode the negative attitudes altogether.
In several newsletters this fall, I will discuss concrete, scientifically validated strategies that individuals can undertake to overcome their own explicit and implicit racial biases as well as ways in which individuals can address structural racism. In the remainder of this newsletter, I will focus on one powerful mechanism: exposure.
Similar to the Brussels sprouts and taxi examples, scientific research has shown that greater exposure to outgroup members can actually improve racial attitudes, even implicit biases. Exposure can look like a few different things—from exposure to different images and situations to increased exposure to outgroup members.
Create opposite images
One technique that researchers have used to reduce implicit racial biases is vivid counterstereotypicality. This is just a fancy term for flipping the script on stereotypes—for example, making Black people be seen as heroes rather than villains.
Photo: Marvel - Chadwick Boseman in Black Panther (2018)
In one experiment testing vivid counterstereotypicality, researchers asked participants to read a story in which the participant was the main character walking down a street late one night after drinking at a bar. A White man in his 40s attacks the participant, throws them into the trunk of his car, and drives away. After a while, he pulls over the car and begins beating the participant again. A young Black man notices the assault in progress and rushes to intervene, rescuing the participant and saving the day.
When participants were instructed to keep the story in mind while completing an Implicit Association Test (IAT), it dramatically reduced levels of anti-Black implicit bias.
Other studies have employed counterstereotypicality in ways that were not as vivid or self-relevant, but have nevertheless obtained significant reductions in implicit bias. In one study, Nilanjana Dasgupta and Anthony Greenwald created three experimental conditions: pro-Black, pro-White, and control.
In the pro-Black condition, participants were exposed to photos of 10 admired Black people (e.g., Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Colin Powell) and 10 disliked White people (e.g., Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer) with either a correct or incorrect description of who they were or what they had done—for example, “leader of the Black civil rights movement in the 1960s” or “former vice president of the United States” for Dr. King. The participants had to identify which statement was correct.
In the pro-White condition, they were exposed to 10 admired White people (e.g., John F. Kennedy, Tom Hanks) and 10 disliked Black people (e.g., O. J. Simpson, Marion Barry) with the appropriate descriptions.
Results showed that participants randomly assigned to the pro-Black condition had significantly lower levels of implicit racial bias than those in the pro-White or control condition. The positive effect of their counterstereotypical exposure appeared even when participants retook the IAT 24 hours later. Interestingly, the pro-White condition had no effect—the level of racial bias in the pro-White condition was exactly the same as that of the control. Being exposed to negative images of Black people and positive White people did not increase racial bias, presumably because the default association—created by society—is that Black is bad and White is good.
Use VR technology to embody other experiences
Another high-tech form of creating opposite images is through a process called virtual embodiment, using VR technology. In one study, White participants were brought into the laboratory and embodied in a Black or White virtual body using virtual reality for a 30-minute simulation. Not only did it reduce implicit racial bias for those White people embodied as a Black person, but the effect lasted for a long time: Participants who were retested seven days later still showed a reduction in implicit bias.
Increase intergroup contact
Decades of research have shown that seeking out repetitive contact with or substantive exposure to outgroup members is highly effective for reducing bias. The contact hypothesis maintained that both discrimination and prejudice could be substantially reduced by increasing social contact between members of different social or ethnic groups.
However, mere contact alone won’t do the trick. Certain conditions must be met in order for intergroup contact to have a positive effect on racial attitudes.
Condition #1: Equal status. Contact works when both groups are equal in status. When they are not equal in status, it can worsen the dynamic. If there is an integrated school where all the White people are rich and all the Black people are poor, for example, then contact will likely worsen rather than improve racial attitudes.
Condition #2: Friendship potential. Even if the groups are of equal status, relations between the groups must be characterized by respect and cooperation rather than rancor and competition.
Condition #3: Institutional sanction. The intergroup contact must be viewed positively, by formal and informal institutions and authority figures, rather than as something that is legally or socially inappropriate.
Condition #4: Common goals. The groups must want to attain the same superordinate goals and rely on each other to achieve these outcomes.
Many real-world situations can satisfy all four of the necessary preconditions. Take a racially integrated sports team. On the court or field, the players are of relatively equal status (with any differences in status being attributable to skill, not race) and have a high level of camaraderie and cooperation, if not outright friendship. The social relationship has the blessing and approval of coaches, fans, and society, and the members of the team are all working toward the same goal and have to rely on one another to achieve it. Thus, one could reason that Whites who are part of a racially integrated sports team will have more positive racial attitudes than Whites who are part of a racially homogeneous sports team.
Research by Kendrick Brown and colleagues tested this hypothesis by examining the racial attitudes and policy preferences of 375 White student-athletes across 24 colleges and universities in the United States who participated in individual or team sports. They examined the percentage of Black people on the White athletes’ main high school athletic team (0–99 percent) as a possible predictor of both attitudes and policy preferences.
Their findings revealed that White student-athletes who had a higher percentage of Black teammates tended to have more positive emotions and attitudes toward Black people. Importantly, they were also more likely to support government policies to improve the social and economic position of Blacks.
Everyday strategies for individuals to reduce bias
What does this mean in everyday life? These studies suggest a few strategies that individuals and groups can implement to change their attitudes.
1. Be mindful of the images that surround you.
Are there any Black people? Are they stereotypical images or heroic images?
Make a list of the five Black people whom you admire most and put pictures of them in your home or office.
Buy a book featuring a Black person you admire and put it on your coffee table so that both you and your guests will see it daily.
Watch movies or read biographies with positive and heroic descriptions of Black people, and be sure that your children’s books and cartoons contain similarly positive depictions.
2. Practice vivid empathy and imagine what it is like to live as a Black person.
Pick a day and challenge yourself to think deeply about the experiences of a person from another group, whether it’s a coworker or a perfect stranger. Put yourself in their shoes and imagine what it would be like to experience life from their perspective. Do you catch yourself making unfair assumptions about their level of education or interests?
Challenge yourself to flip the script on your stereotypes. Simple empathetic mental exercises like this one can go a long way toward making us not only less biased but also more humane in general toward one another.
3. Seek out intergroup experiences and circumstances that comply with the four conditions necessary to positively affect implicit bias.
That may mean finding an intramural community sports team to play on, or a club or organizing group to participate in. It may mean seeking out a new job in a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable organization than you are currently at.
4. Demand positive and equitable images in film, TV, and advertising.
The results of this research suggest that Hollywood could do a lot to end racism if they simply changed the stereotypical images of people of color in the media. Instead, they tend to disproportionately portray Black people as criminals and villains, rather than as heroes and role models.
For example, one investigation examining roles in 26,000 U.S. films showed that Black people were cast as “thugs” or “gang members” in over 60 percent of the roles. In real life, only 13 percent of the population is Black and the majority (i.e., 65 percent) of actual gang members are NOT Black.
Changes needed in our society and its systems
While these are strategies for fighting individual biases at the psychological level, it’s important not to overly psychologize bias. It is primarily a systemic phenomenon that shows up in at least five domains:
Wealth and Income
To more deeply combat biases, we’ll need to employ strategies that change these systems and level the playing field. We will explore systemic racism in a future edition UpCurrent. Stay tuned.