Social Psychology Journal: My Changing Bias

[First published Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, December 21, 2008.]
      I first took the race Implicit Associations Test (or “race IAT”), a test of non-conscious attitudes toward African Americans, several years ago after reading about it in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. In the IAT paradigm, a computer program measures how quickly you associate positive and negative words with African Americans compared to Whites. I was unhappy with the program’s conclusion, that I moderately favored Whites over African Americans, as this bias runs directly counter to my belief system. My disappointment and embarrassment were tempered somewhat, though, by the fact that Gladwell, an African American, reported receiving the same results that I had. Being implicitly racist is an effect of growing up in a racist society1; seventy percent of those who took the race IAT before me had been biased against African Americans to some degree (Project Implicit, 2008). This bias can change, though. Rudman, Ashmore, and Gary (2001), for example, found that race IAT scores improved for volunteers that took a seminar on prejudice and conflict who liked the African American teacher and formed friendships with African Americans during the semester.

      Although I seem to have a weak implicit bias as measured by the IAT, when it comes to my conscious beliefs, I have thought of racism as a big problem for as long as I have understood the concept. It is easy to trace the sources of that belief: First, I come from an egalitarian-minded family, for whom any assertion of differences between races was met with suspicion or contempt. My parents strictly controlled my media exposure, too;2 my two earliest memories of race in the media are watching Roots and a documentary on the Little Rock desegregation process. I remember being confused and enraged by the way people treated each other. Second, my closest friends throughout my life have been even more vehemently anti-racist than my parents, leading me to take part in just the kinds of discussions and self-examination that should lead to shifts in explicit prejudice (Rudman et al., 2001).

Implicitly, I’ve had more trouble, as my IAT results indicated, but that was more difficult to discern. I was in my 20s before I had an experience that revealed my non-conscious racism. I was waiting for my connection in the Sacramento Greyhound station at 4 am, very tired and anxious, and I dozed off for a moment. When I started awake, disoriented, I was vaguely afraid that someone had taken my bag, and scanned the room for who it might have been. My eyes went directly to the one African American man in my field of vision. Then I quickly realized two things. My bag was still with me, and the man I had looked at was a highly unlikely candidate for a thief. He was a middle-aged, conservatively dressed man, talking quietly with his three young children. I was embarrassed and disturbed. For the first time I had the sense that I was subtly possessed by racism. The stress I was experiencing had undermined my controlled processing, and so my implicit attitude had leaked out.3

The roots of my automatic stereotyping are also easy to see: I grew up in a rural, white town, with many racist peers and little opportunity to individuate African Americans. I did not seek out opportunities to do so, either, which left me prey to illusory correlations with stereotypes: Of the two African Americans my age, one happened to be the best break dancer I knew and the other the fastest sprinter. My high school had three African Americans attending, one of whom had a locker next to mine. He had a conversation with his twelve-inch penis every day as we got dressed for gym.4 Later, for college, I moved to a more diverse area, but also started seeing more TV and movies about gang violence and crime. There were also many super aggressive African American panhandlers in downtown Oakland, while I waited for my bus at night. There was when I worked in a restaurant in a poor, African American neighborhood in San Leandro; I remember reminding myself that it was all socioeconomics, but the fact that I could count on bigger tips, on average, from the White people who came in made it hard not to feel happier when they did.

On the other hand, most of my coworkers at that restaurant, whom I became very fond of, were also African American, and I spent a lot of time getting to know them individually. Many of my fellow students at the trade school I attended at San Francisco State were African American as well. Those situations provided me with all of the elements that should result in decreased prejudice against African Americans—mutual interdependence, common goals, equal status, many informal, interpersonal contacts, and a social norm of equality (Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 2007, p. 451)—as well as the opportunity to change my implicit attitudes, as the participants in Rudman and colleagues’ (2001) seminar on prejudice had, by liking my African American supervisors and making friends among this “out-group,”5 during the same period that I had my two most anti-racist housemates ever, and lots of conversations about race.

During the period of my social psychology journal, I started thinking that I stood a good chance of doing better on the race IAT. During the last several years I have stepped up my thinking and emotional work around racism, and have also had more fortunate experiences: I’ve been in an Eliminating Racism support group and two of my favorite counselors are African American men. I had an African American man as a recording studio client, who, though a gangsta rapper, drug dealer, and pimp, I came to know as a sophisticated and complex person. I took a sociology class called America’s Peoples, which looked at the history of oppression in America and included a lot of class discussion. I took a Family and Human Services class called Diversity in Human Services, which was a series of lectures by minority speakers about what it was like to be a member of their group, again with a lot of discussion and introspection. Both of these classes had opportunities for perspective taking, which Galinsky and Moskowitz (2000) found to decrease both implicit and explicit stereotyping. I have good relationships with my honors thesis advisor and my practicum supervisor, both of whom are African American. Finally, I have been elated ever since the election of Barack Obama, an African American, to the presidency of the United States, and watching his speeches with great appreciation.

I was surprised and very frustrated to find that second attempt at the race IAT showed the same results as my first had: I moderately favored Whites over African Americans. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised; it is notoriously difficult to change your score. On the other hand, the results of the test, as they are available online, are not very fine-grained; all response times are measured to the millisecond, but all that variability is funneled into seven categories—strong, moderate, mild, or no preference for or against African Americans. It was quite possible that I had come very close to improving my results without knowing it, so I engaged in counter-factual thinking. Perhaps I was a victim of stereotype threat; perhaps my fear of confirming the stereotype that White people are racist caused me to do so.6 Or maybe it had been sequence effects that had foiled me; the version of the test I had taken had started with negative words associated with African American faces. I thought that I would have done better if it had started with positive words associated with African American faces. But it hadn’t and I hadn’t.7

After I calmed down, I took an IAT for preferences between the presidential candidates, Obama and McCain, at the same time as testing preferences for Whites or African Americans. This time, the results said that I moderately preferred Obama over McCain, but also that I stronglypreferred African Americans to Whites. The IAT is supposed to be quite reliable, so I was surprised about the change8—something was going on that could change my results pretty radically. I started thinking that part of my score was my skill on the task—that one or more of my inept answers were serving as extreme outliers, 9 biasing my scores one way or the other. I took the race IAT for a third time, and this time scored as not biased at all, making me the happiest yet, but even more curious. Maybe I spiked my appreciation for African Americans by priming myself with images of Obama and McCain,10 and in the future my score would again show my moderate bias. Or perhaps my greater facility with the test had brought out my true non-bias.11 Or perhaps itwas the sequence effects, after all, because the third time had paired African American faces with good words first. Finally, if the results could vary this much, maybe my single attempt at the test years ago had been an aberration as well, misreporting my true bias or lack of bias.12

Over the next few days, I took the race IAT three more times, and each time scored the same—unbiased—so I feel pretty safe now to say that this is my true score. I feel pleased about that but I don’t believe that it means I am free from bias or prejudice toward African Americans. Strictly speaking, it just means that I don’t associate negative words like “hate,” “pain,” and “evil,” or positive words like “laughter,” “glorious,” and “love,” with images of African American faces any quicker than I do with images of White faces. Still, assuming that my first score of moderately biased was my true score of several years ago, it shows some progress—my non-conscious processes have caught up with my conscious beliefs to some degree. And even if my original score was misleading, I am still pleased with my unbiased score.

[Comments by instructor, Sean Laurent:]

Good you should be pleased. Still, there are ways, if one is consciously trying, to “beat” the IAT (there has been some discussion in the literature about this), such as described above.

This is a well-crafted paper, full of insight and very interesting to read. Did you actually keep a journal for the two weeks, or just reflect on implicit and explicit racism in your life as you wrote the paper. Either way, it came out well, and tells a very nice story, linking ideas in your life to specific experiences and showing that you have reflected on the topic. Well done. 48/50 I might like to use this paper as an example of a reaction paper that is done correctly.

1 Is it? This is kind of a sweeping statement – it implies that the problem of why people are implicitly racist is solved.

2 You might mention why this is important in terms of knowledge of racial stereotypes driving certain effects like shooter bias, etc.

3 Very vivid storytelling here.

4 That’s funny….

5 This last part seems tacked on and could be safely reorganized or made into another sentence.

6 Good point, possible.

7 Usually this doesn’t matter much.

8alternatively, it could be that you have very strong associations with Barak, and that while he was serving as an exemplar of the group, this overrode the automatic stereotyping)

9 Also possible.

10 Quite possibly.

11 Or you might have deliberately or unconsciously slowed your responses to BOTH categories in order to speed your pairings of whites with negative, etc.

12 Probably not. Remember, from articles like the shooter bias, that even a strong knowledge of the cultural stereotype can drive implicit effects, so…

References

      Aronson, E., Wilson, T. D., & Akert, R. M. (2007).

Social Psychology. 

    Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
      Galinsky, A. D., & Moskowitz, G. B. (2000). Perspective-taking: Decreasing stereotype expression, stereotype accessibility, and in-group favoritism.

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 

    708-724.
      Gladwell, M. (2005).

Blink

    . New York: Little, Brown.
      Project Implicit (2008). Retrieved November 16, 2008, from

https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/demo/background/faqs.html#faq22

       and

https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/Study?tid=-1

    .
      Rudman, L. A., Ashmore, R. D., & Gary, M. L. (2001). “Unlearning” automatic biases: The malleability of implicit prejudice and stereotypes.

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81,

       856-868.
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