As recently as 1972, surveys said that most White Americans (approximately 60%) believed that it was acceptable for home sellers to discriminate based on race1. Likewise, as early as 2001, other surveys noted that only 40% of Americans openly approved of gay or lesbian relationships2.
But by the early 2000s, the percentage of White Americans accepting racial discrimination in home selling had dropped by 50%; and by 2015, the number of Americans accepting of gay or lesbian relationships had increased by over 50%.
So, it would seem that American attitudes regarding issues such as race and sexuality have shifted dramatically over the past 50 years. For those pursuing equal rights, these numbers are promising, demonstrating how quickly opinions can shift on critical issues.
But have things really changed all that much?
Such surveys, though, investigate only explicit or overt attitudes. Explicit attitudes are those opinions or beliefs of which you are consciously aware and can articulate3. For instance, when asked, most Americans can tell you whether they prefer Coke or Pepsi and give you reasons why (e.g., “It tastes better.”, “I like the logo better.”). However, in addition to explicit attitudes, you can also have implicit attitudes – which are positive or negative associations that you have with a given subject of which you are not aware4.
On the surface, this concept may seem ludicrous. How can you associate certain positive or negative feelings with a subject without knowing it? A better way to think about these unconscious attitudes is as implicit biases. Thus, it’s not that you hold unknown, complex feelings regarding different subjects but that you might have certain, automatic tendencies or associations related to those things. Returning to the soda example: If presented with a cooler filled with Pepsi and Coke, you might automatically and unthinkingly grab a Coke, even though, if asked, you would say that you like both products equally.
Do You have a hidden bias?
To measure these hidden biases, psychologists use a measure known as the Implicit Association Test (IAT)5-6. In this task, participants are asked to sort positive and negative words while also sorting words or images associated with certain topics or groups of people. For instance, in the IAT for White and Black people, participants might initially press the left arrow key whenever they see positive words or White faces and the right arrow key for negative words or Black faces. Halfway through, the association is flipped such that participants now press the left arrow key for positive words and Black faces and the right arrow key for negative words and White faces. If participants are quicker to associate a certain race with negative words, then they can be said to have an implicit bias against that race. If you have 5 minutes, perhaps the best way to understand how the IAT works is to visit Harvard’s website and take it for yourself.
The IAT is interesting to psychologists for two reasons. First, one problem with surveys and other explicit measures is that participants can lie. People often know which answers are socially acceptable, so it is quite possible for participants to “fake it,” selecting only the answers that make them look good. However, the IAT has shown to be incredibly resistant to faking, even when participants are instructed to fake a certain attitude7. Second, the IAT has revealed that people can have strong implicit biases towards certain groups – even though they do not hold any explicit prejudices towards that group8. For instance, a person may not endorse any negative stereotypes of Black people and may in fact support legislation aimed at promoting racial equality, but the same person may still demonstrate a strong, negative bias against Black people on the IAT. However, a major open question is whether implicit biases can actually affect the way we act towards others.
As it stands, it’s unclear if or how the implicit biases measured by the IAT relate to behavior. Initial studies reported that the IAT might predict prejudiced behaviors better than explicit measures, especially when those behaviors were socially unacceptable (e.g., a negative bias towards Black people)8. In other words, the IAT might be able to detect subtle nuances that bias your behavior towards people in the real world. However, recent research has brought these findings into question. Specifically, studies have found that explicit measures of bias were just as good, if not better, at predicting prejudiced behavior than the implicit biases detected by the IAT9. One possibility, then, is that the IAT simply reflects a person’s knowledge of the negative associations present in their culture. For instance, you might show a negative bias towards LGBT individuals on the IAT because you are aware of the negative associations your culture has typically had with that group and not because you actually hold those negative opinions yourself. Because of this uncertainty, the IAT remains a hot area of research, and psychologists are constantly searching for new ways to investigate its meaning.
With these findings in mind, what should you do now? Though research on the IAT is ongoing, the fact that our behavior can be biased in subtle ways should give one pause. In our multicultural society, we constantly interact with individuals who are different from ourselves, and even if we explicitly believe that we are all equals, we need to remain vigilant to the possibility that we may still harbor negative, unspoken biases against these individuals. In so doing, we can hopefully make our communities better, more friendly places to all who live with us.
1. Bobo, L. D., Charles, C. Z., Krysan, M., & Simmons, A. D. (2012). The real record on racial attitudes. In P. Marsden (Ed.), Social trends in American life: Findings from the General Social Survey since 1972 (pp. 38-83). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
2. Newport, F. (2015, May 26). Americans continue to shift left on key moral issues. Gallup. Retrieved from http://www.gallup.com/poll/183413/americans-continue-shift-left-key-moral-issues.aspx
3. Fiske, S. T. (2004). Intent and ordinary bias: Unintended thought and social motivation create casual prejudice. Social Justice Research, 17, 117-127.
4. Greenwald, A. G., & Banaji, M. R. (1995). Implicit social cognition: attitudes, self-esteem, and stereotypes. Psychological review, 102, 4.
5. Greenwald, A. G., McGhee, D. E., & Schwartz, J. L. (1998). Measuring individual differences in implicit cognition: the implicit association test. Journal of personality and social psychology, 74, 1464.
6. Greenwald, A. G., & Nosek, B. A. (2001). Health of the Implicit Association Test at age 3. Zeitschrift für Experimentelle Psychologie, 48, 85-93.
7. Banse, R., Seise, J., & Zerbes, N. (2001). Implicit attitudes towards homosexuality: Reliability, validity, and controllability of the IAT. Zeitschrift für experimentelle Psychologie, 48, 145-160.
8. Greenwald, A. G., Poehlman, T. A., Uhlmann, E. L., & Banaji, M. R. (2009). Understanding and using the Implicit Association Test: III. Meta-analysis of predictive validity. Journal of personality and social psychology, 97, 17.
Sam Hunley holds a doctorate in cognitive psychology from Emory University. He pursued his Bachelor's degree in psychology from Furman University and a master's from Emory. Sam's research, alongside Dr. Stella Lourenco, focuses on human perception of the space surrounding the body, exploring the impact of anxiety and phobias on this perception. Together, they contribute to Anxiety.org articles. Post-graduation, Sam became a Presidential Management Fellow.