The Psychology of How We Learn Prejudice: Are We Natural-Born Racists?

Writer Chris Mooney was convinced he was unbiased and saw everyone equally—until a simple test proved otherwise. Here's, how we become racist, and what we can do to be less prejudiced.

I’m sitting in the soft-spoken cognitive neuroscientist’s spotless office, nestled within New York University’s psychology department, but it feels like I’m at the doctor’s office getting a dreaded diagnosis. On his giant monitor, Amodio shows me a big blob of data depicting where people score on the Implicit Association Test (IAT). The test measures racial prejudices that we cannot consciously control. I’ve taken it three times now. This time around, my uncontrolled prejudice, while clearly present, has come in significantly below the average for White people like me.

That certainly beats the first time I took the IAT. That time, my results showed a “strong automatic preference” for European Americans over African Americans. That was not a good thing to hear, but it’s extremely common—51 percent of online test takers show moderate to strong bias.

The test asks you to rapidly categorize images of faces as either “African American” or “European American” while you also categorize words (like evil, happy, awful, and peace) as either “good” or “bad.” Faces and words flash on the screen, and you tap a key, as fast as you can, to indicate which category is appropriate.

Sometimes you’re asked to sort African American faces and “good” words to one side of the screen. Other times, Black faces are to be sorted with “bad” words. As words and faces keep flashing by, you struggle not to make too many sorting mistakes.

And then suddenly, you have a horrible realization. When Black faces and “bad” words are paired, you feel yourself becoming faster in your categorizing—an indication that the two are more easily linked in your mind.

You think of yourself as a person who strives to be unprejudiced, but you can’t control these split-second reactions. As the milliseconds are being tallied up, you know the tale they’ll tell: When negative words and Black faces are paired, you’re a better, faster categorizer. Which suggests that racially biased messages from the culture around you have shaped the very wiring of your brain.

We’re not born with racial prejudices. We may never even have been “taught” them. Rather, explains University of Virginia psychologist Brian Nosek, prejudice draws on “many of the same tools that help our minds figure out what’s good and what’s bad.” In evolutionary terms, it’s efficient to quickly classify a grizzly bear as dangerous. The trouble comes when the brain uses similar processes to form negative views about groups of people.

But here’s the good news: Research suggests that once we understand the psychological pathways that lead to prejudice, we just might be able to train our brains to go in the opposite direction.

Our brain is a file cabinet

Dog, cat. Hot, cold. Black, white. Male, female. We constantly categorize. We have to. Sorting anything from furniture to animals to concepts into different folders inside our brains is something that happens automatically, and it helps us function. In fact, categorization has an evolutionary purpose: Assuming that all mushrooms are poisonous and that all lions want to eat you is a very effective way of coping with your surroundings. Forget being nuanced about nonpoisonous mushrooms and occasionally nonhungry lions—certitude keeps you safe.

But a particular way of categorizing can be inaccurate, and those false categories can lead to prejudice and stereotyping. Much psychological research into bias has focused on how people “essentialize” certain categories, which boils down to assuming that these categories have an underlying nature that is tied to inherent and immutable qualities.

Like other human attributes (gender, age, and sexual orientation, for example), race tends to be strongly—and inaccurately—essentialized. This means that when you think of people in that category, you rapidly or even automatically come up with assumptions about their characteristics. Common stereotypes with the category “African Americans,” for example, include “loud,” “good dancers,” and “good at sports.” Essentialism about any group of people is dubious—women are not innately gentle, old people are not inherently feebleminded—and when it comes to race, the idea of deep and fundamental differences has been roundly debunked by scientists.

Even people who know that essentializing race is wrong can’t help absorbing the stereotypes that are pervasive in our culture. In polls, for example, few Americans admit holding racist views. But when told to rate the intelligence of various groups, more than half exhibited strong bias against African Americans. Even the labels we use seem to affect our level of prejudice: Another study found that test subjects associated the term Black with more negative attributes—such as low socioeconomic status—than African American.

We’re herd animals

Humans are tribal creatures, showing strong bias against those we perceive as different from us and favoritism toward those we perceive as similar. In fact, we humans will divide ourselves into in-groups and out-groups even when the perceived differences between the specific groups are completely arbitrary.

In one study, subjects are asked to rate how much they like a large series of paintings, some of which are described as belonging to the “Red” artistic school and others to the “Green” school. Then participants are randomly sorted into two groups, red or green. In subsequent tasks, people consistently show favoritism toward the arbitrary color group to which they are assigned.

In other words, if you give people the slightest push toward behaving tribally, they’ll happily comply. So if race is the basis on which tribes are identified, expect serious problems.

One simple evolutionary explanation for our tendency toward tribalism is safety in numbers. You’re more likely to survive an attack from a marauding tribe if you join forces with your buddies. And primal fear of those not in the in-group also seems closely tied to racial bias.

Amodio’s research suggests that one key area associated with prejudice is the amygdala, a small and evolutionarily ancient region in the middle of the brain that is responsible for triggering the notorious fight-or-flight response. In interracial situations, Amodio explains, amygdala firing can translate into anything from “less direct eye gaze and more social distance” to literal fear and vigilance toward those of other races. This journalist who witnessed Nazi horrors firsthand warns us that our fight against prejudice should always be active. 

Racism’s effects on racists

Prejudice often has an unintended consequence—it can interfere with how our brains function and make us less innovative. We’re not talking about artistic creativity here but seeing beyond the constraints of traditional categories, or thinking outside the box.

Carmit Tadmor, a psychologist at the Recanati School of Business at Tel Aviv University, and her colleagues used a simple test in which individuals were asked to list possible uses for a brick. People who could think outside traditional categories—aside from being used in building, bricks make good paperweights, for example—score better. This study showed that people who essentialized racial categories tended to have fewer innovative ideas about a brick.

But that was just the beginning. Next, a new set of research subjects read essays that described race either as a fundamental difference between people (an essentialist position) or as a construct, not reflecting anything more than skin-deep differences (a nonessentialist position). After reading the essays, the subjects moved on to a difficult creativity test that required them to identify the one key word that united three seemingly unassociated words. Thus, for instance, if a subject was given the words call, pay, and line, the correct answer was phone. Remarkably, subjects who’d read the nonessentialist essay about race fared considerably better on the creativity test. Their mean score was 32 percent higher than the mean score of those who read the essentialist essay.

“Essentialism appears to exert its negative effects on creativity not through what people think but how they think,” concludes Tadmor. That’s because “stereotyping and creative stagnation are rooted in a similar tendency to overrely on existing category attributes.” Those quick-judgment skills that allowed us to survive on the savanna? Not always helpful in modern life.

A solution to prejudice?

The upshot of all this research is that in order to rid the world of prejudice, we can’t simply snuff out overt racism. Nor can we fundamentally remake the human brain, with its rapid-fire associations and its groupish tendencies. Instead, the key lies in shifting people’s behavior. And that just might be possible. In a massive study, Brian Nosek of the University of Virginia and his colleagues tested 17 different proposed ways of reducing people’s unconscious bias on the IAT.

The single best intervention involved putting people into scenarios in which a Black person became their ally while White people were depicted as the bad guys. In this intervention, participants read an evocative story told in second-person narrative in which a White man assaults the participant and a Black man rescues him. Then they took the IAT—and showed 48 percent less bias than a control group. (Note: The groups in these various studies were mostly white; no participants were Black.)

Another successful variation had Nonblacks think about Black role models or imagine themselves playing on a dodgeball team with Black teammates against a team of White people (who proceed to cheat). In other words, it appears that our tribal instincts can actually be co-opted to decrease prejudice, if we are made to see those of other races as part of our team.

When it comes to weakening racial essentialism, Carmit Tadmor undertook another tack. Subjects were exposed to one of three 20-minute multimedia presentations: one exclusively about American culture, one exclusively about Chinese culture, and one comparing American and Chinese cultures, which presumably led to a more nuanced perspective on their similarities and differences.

Tadmor found that White research subjects who had heard the multicultural presentation (but not the American-only or Chinese-only presentation) were less likely than members of the other study groups to endorse stereotypes about African Americans. That was true even though the subjects had learned about Chinese and American cultures, not African American culture specifically.

In a variation, the same 20-minute lecture also produced fewer discriminatory hiring decisions. After hearing one of the three kinds of lectures, White study subjects were shown a series of résumés for the position of sales manager at a company. Some applicants had White-sounding names, and some had Black-sounding names.

White subjects who had heard the lecture exclusively about American culture (with topics like Disney, Coca-Cola, and the White House) picked a White candidate over an equally qualified Black candidate 81 percent of the time. Subjects who had heard a lecture exclusively about Chinese culture picked a White candidate 86 percent of the time. But subjects who had heard the culture-comparing lecture selected the White candidate only 56 percent of the time.

These studies suggest that, at least for the short time span of a psychology experiment, there are cognitive ways to make people less prejudiced.

To be sure, it will take more than consciousness-raising to erase the deep tracks of prejudice America has carved through the generations. But it’s a start. Taking the IAT made me realize that we can’t just draw some arbitrary line between prejudiced people and unprejudiced people and declare ourselves to be on the side of the angels. Biases have slipped into all our brains. And that means we all have a responsibility to recognize those biases—and to work to change them.

Want to know where you stand when it comes to race? Take the Implicit Association Test (IAT) at understandingprejudice.org.

For more on this important issue, see our guide to the Fight Against Racism.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest

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