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Implicit Prejudice Unconsciously Colors Our World

by Chris de Morsella

Implicit prejudice is a real and still poorly addressed problem in the workplace and society

at large. While the incidence of overt explicit prejudice and racism has plummeted in American society over the last decades, implicit prejudice, which is prejudice that is harbored subconsciously and is expressed inadvertently, is still widespread. Unconsciously arrived at attitudes towards race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability etc. have a profound impact on the conscious opinions we form and attitudes we adopt towards other individuals we encounter within our work and social lives.

Even though implicit prejudice may arise from below our level of awareness it still has a very real impact on our behavior, on how we view others and act towards them. As long as it remains hidden within the unconscious and is ignored by society it will continue to act upon us in a negative manner. It is little comfort to the victims of prejudice that the prejudice was probably unconscious. It still means that they are unfairly passed over for promotions, refused interviews based on their names, denied bank loans, and refused opportunities to view homes they want to purchase.

Prejudice that is implicit still has the same harmful effect as prejudice which is consciously practiced to those who suffer because of it. It is a very real problem to the people it effects, even if those, whose attitudes and actions are influenced by it may be unaware themselves of the nature of their behavior and their attitudes.

Some may be asking themselves: How can we know it exists or measure it if it arises from the unconscious? Unconscious attitudes and stereotypes can be teased out into the open by a technique that relies on measuring how test subjects respond to associations of value-laden words with visual images. Computer-based implicit association tests (IAT) can reveal the presence of this kind of unconscious prejudice within test subjects. These kinds of tests, first developed by University of Washington professor Anthony Greenwald, measure split-second differentials in reaction times to a series of associative memory questions that pair value laden word phrases with visual stimuli. For example, computer programs assess the degree to which people associate positive and negative words with different ethnic groups.

Testing for implicit prejudice is a controversial subject with some critics maintaining that these types of tests do not really measure unconscious prejudice, but only harmless cultural knowledge. However a meta-analysis by Greenwald and Banaji across 61 studies has shown that IAT test results predicted judgments, opinions and behavior linked to stereotyping and prejudice better than expressed attitudes could. This conclusion is also backed up by other studies, including a University of Colorado study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1997: “Evidence for Racial Prejudice at the Implicit Level and Its Relationship With Questionnaire Measures” by Bernd Wittenbrink, Charles M. Judd, and Bernadette Park.

At Harvard’s Project Implicit web site you can test yourself on 14 different measures of implicit prejudice and find out if you automatically favor people with light skin over dark skin or young over old, for example. Even genuinely egalitarian people may find that the test results reveal a hidden prejudice that they are not aware of a prejudice that arises from below the level of our awareness.

Discovering the existence of unconscious stereotypic attitudes within ourselves can be an unsettling experience especially for those of us who on a conscious level see themselves as being mostly free of prejudicial behavior. However it also has the potential to help us look into ourselves and begin the process of disentangling who we cocnciously choose to be from these hidden signaling systems that lie buried beneath our awareness. By becoming aware of our own implicit prejudices, we can help our conscious attitudes take charge.

As social psychologist Mahzarin Banaji of the Harvard faculty says in Making case for concept of 'implicit prejudice' "We've found that ordinary people, including ourselves, harbor negative associations toward particular social groups on 'implicit' measures of bias, even though they honestly report having no such bias at the conscious level," says Banaji. And this bias is hardly inconsequential, she says: Implicit attitudes, they have found, predict behavior, from simple acts of friendliness and inclusion to judgments of "goodness" or evaluation of the quality of work.

It is fair to say that all of us form our conscious views based, at least partially on unconscious processes of which we are consciously unaware. This is how our brains work and in many cases this rapid fire means of arriving at a judgment or adopting an attitude may be harmless or even very beneficial. Certainly it played an important role in our survival in our natural pre-historical habitat, much as the shadow of a hawk’s wing causes a rabbit to run for cover. However, when the unexamined mind leads us to behave in a manner that is harmful to others we should shine the light of self-examination onto the hidden processes that lie within and that generate the ill behavior.

There's no way to wipe out all the years of evolution during which humans and their ancestors learned to fear the unfamiliar, to be ready to flee from or fight at any threat. But fortunately our brains are flexible enough to be altered by experience. Much in the same way that we consciously can break a bad-eating habit, for example, by catching ourselves when we reach for the junk food without thinking and consciously habituating ourselves to eat healthier foods, we can also consciously address these hidden prejudices that color our worlds. The first step in doing so, is becoming aware that we may in fact have what Mahzarin Banaji has termed -- using jargon borrowed from the world of computer programming – mind bug or mistakes in perception that give rise to unconscious forms of prejudice.

About the Author: Chris de Morsella is Chief Operating Officer of The Multicultural Advantage, a web site that provides resources designed to help professionals from diverse backgrounds succeed in the workplace and employers increase their diversity recruiting effectiveness. Chris is our global diversity and immigration commentator. Though his roots are in technology leadership, working on key projects within companies like Microsoft, Associated Press and Thompson Publishing, his work has been focused on diversity staffing issues for over five years. Having worked in the United States, Europe, Asia and Latin America and being able to speak English, Italian and Spanish gives him some interesting perspectives on global diversity issues.

Chris de Morsella