Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


prejudiced

(PHOTO: XROIG/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Is There Anything We Can Do to Correct for the Fact That We’re All a Little Bit Prejudiced?

• November 05, 2013 • 12:00 PM

(PHOTO: XROIG/SHUTTERSTOCK)

New research on implicit bias offers some valuable insights on how it operates in negotiation settings—but also highlights the complicated ways it resists intervention.

Debates over race and public policy in the United States are a bit odd from a social-psychological standpoint. They tend to focus on explicit racism, on who said what and whether it was offensive, rather than on the trickiest, most difficult to dislodge aspect of racism: implicit bias.

Researchers have known for years that racism is a lot more complicated than how a white person responds to a question about blacks. Rather, it affects judgment and decision making at a subconscious level, even among many otherwise egalitarian people, influencing how they decide who to trust and how they react to dangerous-seeming situations.

One new study, led by New York University psychology researchers Jeni Kubota and Elizabeth Phelps, offers some valuable new insights into how implicit bias operates in negotiation settings—but also highlights the complicated ways that bias resists behavioral interventions.

The study is based on the Ultimatum Game, which is something of a behavioral economics greatest hit. In its standard version, the “proposer” must offer the “player” a split of $10. The player chooses whether or not to accept—if he or she declines, no one gets anything.

“First, prejudice is NOT just about individual bad apples. It lives and thrives in even the best intentioned. Solutions will have to take this into account.”

Neoclassical economics suggests that players, being rational, will accept any amount of money greater than zero, because the decision is whether to get some money or no money. But a surprising percentage of players will reject low offers, which suggests that affront at an unfair-seeming offer can short-circuit the steely-eyed rationality of homo economicus.

Kubota and her colleagues applied race to their version of the game, hypothesizing that as a result of ingrained stereotypes which associate them with “aggression and hostility,” black proposers would have a harder time getting other players to accept their offers than would white proposers.

That is, in fact, what they found: a statistically significant difference in the rates at which non-black players accepted offers from black versus non-black proposers.

“Even if the offer is the same, [players are] still going to reject more often for black [proposers] than whites,” Kubota said. “So if a black player offers $2 and a white player offers $2, they’re going to, on average, accept a proposal from the white player but not the black player.”

Kubota said that in looking at the results, the team couldn’t ascribe these differences simply to in-group/out-group effects. “It wasn’t just about being an out-group member,” she said. “It really was specific to black players in our game. So it seems to be something specific to what they were associating the black player with.”

It’s an interesting result, and it contributes to a growing body of research on the ways in which implicit bias operates. But all of this work races a question: What, exactly, are we supposed to do about it from a public-policy perspective?

Even within the narrow area of interracial negotiations, after all, there are certainly pressing public-policy issues. Take the debate about the Affordable Care Act, for example. Given what we know about bias, it’s not much of a stretch to suggest that it has influenced perceptions of Obamacare among white Americans, that many of them view the program in a racialized way—either because the “offer” is coming from a black president, or because of a widespread-in-some-circles conception that the benefit is flowing only to poor, “lazy” minorities (in this case, some of the effects would be explicit rather than implicit).

These attitudes have consequences: There are certainly legitimate arguments to be made against Obamacare, but the race of the law’s proposer, or of its recipients, is not one of them. Moreover, the law’s effectiveness in improving health care in America will depend on people actually signing up for it, rather than refusing to as a result of their suspicious attitudes.

“Of course, it’s hard to extract these really tightly controlled experimental situations” to the real world, Kubota said. But “it certainly seems that at least a part of that rejection in negotiation situations can be explained by whether the person is of a similar group to you or not.”

So implicit bias could be affecting attitudes toward Obamacare, as well as plenty of other public-policy issues. That’s good to know. But where does it lead us?

With some social science research, after all, there’s a short and well-paved path from research finding to intervention. If, as studies suggest, color-coding works better than calorie counts at encouraging people to make healthy eating decisions, there’s no mystery about what policy makers should do: push for more color-coding.

Research into implicit bias is different.

“Translating what we know about implicit prejudice into public-policy prescriptions is tricky to say the least,” wrote Curtis Hardin, a psychologist at Brooklyn College, in an email. “Frankly, it’s a lot easier to exploit prejudice for political purposes than to subvert it.”

The problem is that implicit prejudice is, well, implicit. As Kubota put it, “If people don’t have access to it, how do we intervene?” That’s part of the reason this specific subgenre of behavioral intervention is taking a bit longer to develop than some of its other, more straightforward cousins.

“Right now, a lot of intervention work on implicit bias is new,” she said. “Though we can make some claims about what’s been found in the last 10 years, a lot of this research is just starting.”

Hardin did note that there are already some practical takeaways from implicit bias research, however.

“First,” he wrote, “prejudice is NOT just about individual bad apples. It lives and thrives in even the best intentioned. Solutions will have to take this into account.” Peer pressure is another important factor, he wrote, since “implicit prejudice is readily influenced by pretty straight-forward social influence processes. For example, being around people you respect or like who you think value black people reduces and sometimes reverses anti-black implicit prejudice.”

Kubota said that hasty decisions are more likely to suffer from implicit bias. “Giving people more time helps,” she said. “Quick, speedy decisions lend themselves more to the influence of implicit bias. When people are given more time there are processes in the brain that come online: self-control processes that can downregulate the effects of implicit bias on behavior.” (For more on this, check out some of Daniel Kahneman’s work.)

No, these ideas aren’t as easy to implement as a red dot on a bacon cheeseburger. But they do mark an important start.

Kubota, for one, said she was hopeful that the anti-bias arsenals of social scientists will continue to grow. “There’s people at all levels of analysis working on this problem right now.”

Jesse Singal

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.


October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.


Follow us


We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.