Two years ago, just after presidential candidate Barack Obama made his famous speech on race, we reported on disturbing evidence that white Americans unconsciously associate African Americans with apes. Newly published research suggests that connection remains stubbornly lodged in our psyches.
“This broadly held association has the power to spontaneously change the content of one’s visual world,” Stanford University psychologists Aneeta Rattan and Jennifer Eberhardt report in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Specifically, they write, white Americans who are primed to think about black people are more likely to spot a gorilla in a short video clip.
Rattan and Eberhardt based their research on the concept of “inattentional blindness” — the idea that what we see at any given moment is largely dependent upon where our attention is focused. They replicated a classic experiment in which participants are shown a video of six people passing balls to one another and are instructed to count the number of passes made by the players wearing white shirts.
For nine seconds of the half-minute video, a woman in a gorilla costume enters the frame, pauses to beat her chest and then exits. In a 1999 study, only 42 percent of viewers noticed her presence; the others were so focused on the task at hand that even the unexpected appearance of a jungle animal did not register.
The researchers recreated this experiment, using 61 white American students. Before the video was played, they assigned participants to sort one of two lists of names. One featured stereotypically African-American names such as Jamal and Malik, while the other consisted of names associated with whites, such as Adam and Betsy.
They then watched the video and counted the number of times the ball was passed. Afterwards, they were asked if they noticed anything else in the short clip.
Those who had sorted through the African-American names were significantly more likely to notice the gorilla, “exhibiting almost 25 percent less inattentional blindness” than those who sorted the white-sounding names, according to the researchers.
“In the current study, detecting the gorilla did not come at the expense of accurately counting the ball passes,” they add. “It is as though the African-American-ape association provided the study participants with a type of visual fluency, increasing their capacity to extract more from the visual world.”
This is the first study to suggest this sort of unconscious association can substantially reduce inattentional blindness. As such, it’s hardly encouraging: It implies that if a bit of visual information is compatible with our prejudices (even ones we don’t know we have), we’re more likely to notice it. In this way, our biases can get “confirmed,” and presumably locked more securely in our minds.
“Social associations may leave us blind to important information that falls outside of our pre-existing associations (e.g., counter-stereotypical information),” Rattan and Eberhardt write. “Rather than working to challenge associations that are faulty or negative, such as the African-American-ape association, the visual information we receive from the world may further support them.”