Psychologists Want to Address Unconscious Racial Bias

Psychologists Look for Ways to Address Unconscious Racial Bias

Police officer writing citationWe all make judgments based on racial stereotypes, even when we work hard to pay attention to our actions. Psychologists content that it’s most often a subconscious act, the product of years of socialization and training, from parents and others. In light of a number of incidents involving white police officers and persons of color, psychologists and researchers have initiated investigations of the origin and character of subconscious racial bias, hoping to find ways to counteract our desire to label and categorize each other.

Researchers have long known about the unconscious inclination to racial bias, but are only now starting to find ways to combat it. One of the first hints that subconscious racial bias could be changed came in 2001, when a study found that racial prejudices could be temporarily changed by showing subjects pictures of well-known and respected persons of color alongside pictures of white persons perceived to be evil—a picture of Nelson Mandela next to a picture of Adolph Hitler. Before that study, psychologists believed subconscious racial bias to be unchangeable.

Calvin Lai, a doctoral psychology candidate at the University of Virginia, focuses his research on what he calls “de-biasing.” Earlier this year, he published the results of a variety of proposed “de-biasing” strategies, including:

  • The intentional use of empathy or asking subjects to “put themselves in the shoes of” a person they have some prejudice against
  • Educating subjects on the values of different cultures and their contributions to our common humanity
  • Asking subjects to focus on injustices committed by Caucasians against persons of color

Lai concluded that about half of the sixteen different approaches he tested had some impact, but the strategy that was most effective was consistent with the 2001 study—providing subjects with images that negate the stereotype. Lai could not, however, determine how long any of the different methods would work.

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