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Are you racist? You may be without even knowing it

Our implicit associations reveal more about our true attitudes than what we explicitly state. Image from

The infamous Youtube video capturing a young man abusing women on a Melbourne bus for the crime of singing in French, and being supported in his violent tirade by fellow passengers, raises the uncomfortable question – are Australians racists?

Most of us acknowledge our shameful history of racism, including genocidal violence directed against the first inhabitants of this continent, but we hope we’ve left those dark days far behind us.

I don’t know how common overt racism of the kind captured on the video is today. Questions like that are notoriously difficult to answer, in part because people are often reluctant to express their true attitudes when they know that many others disapprove of them.

I’m going to suggest, however, that a great many of us, almost certainly an overwhelming majority, are home to a range of biases, including xenophobia and racism, which dispose us to think badly of how things are done elsewhere or by people who we don’t think of as belonging to our in-group. I’m not going to suggest that most Australians are racist; I’m not going to suggest that you are racist.

I think the evidence I will cite doesn’t settle that question. In fact, whether you are racist may be less important than we tend to think.

It’s not easy to say what exactly it takes to be a racist. It’s usually not hard, though, to recognise racists; that’s why the Youtube video is so shocking. If someone believes that members of some racial group are less intelligent, or more lazy, or less moral, than members of their own racial group, they are racist.

Some cases are harder to classify – what do we say about the person who thinks that members of some cultures are inferior in some way? Sometimes, this kind of belief is a rationalisation of racism, sometimes it may not be. Psychologists call the kind of beliefs in question here explicit attitudes. An explicit attitude is an attitude that the person can express and stand by, and which they assert as theirs.

But explicit attitudes are not the only kind of attitudes there are. We also have implicit attitudes, and our implicit attitudes may also – or instead – be the source of bias.

A grab from the video of the racial abuse on a Melbourne bus in November. Mike Nayna/YouTube

We discover what someone’s explicit attitudes are by asking her. Honest answers to questions like “do you think Aboriginals (or Africans, or whatever) are as intelligent as whites?” will reveal her explicit attitudes. You can discover your explicit attitudes in exactly the same kind of way. But it can take some work to discover someone’s implicit attitudes.

There are various techniques scientists use to measure implicit attitudes. One of the most popular is the Implicit Association Test. You can do such a test yourself; the researchers at Project Implicit have made many available on the web (including one that tests for implicit associations with regard to Aboriginal and white Australians).

An Implicit Association Test measures speed in associating pairs of concepts. For instance, you might press one key if presented either with a picture of an Aboriginal face or with the word for a positive concept (“laughter”; “wonderful”; “joy”) and another key if presented with a white face or the word for a negative concept (“pain”; “awful”; “evil”).

The position of every element switches around – sometimes the left key is white/bad, sometimes it is white/good, sometimes Aboriginal/bad and sometimes Aboriginal/good. By measuring the speed of button presses, researchers are able to measure the strength of the association in an individual between positive and negative concepts and white and black faces (or pictures of males versus females, or words describing gay men and women, or whatever else they are interested in measuring).

Here’s the interesting finding: implicit and explicit attitudes don’t always travel hand in hand. It’s quite common for someone who on every explicit measure is clearly not racist to nevertheless be quicker to associate positive concepts with white faces than with black faces, and quicker to associate negative concepts with black faces than with white faces.

In fact, most white Americans show a moderate preference for white faces over black faces, as measured by Implicit Association Test scores. That doesn’t mean that most white Americans are racist. I think there are good reasons to identify people’s real attitudes with their explicit attitudes (though the issues here are complex).

One reason for caution is that having negative implicit attitudes to a particular group is by no means confined to people outside that group. Though black Americans have more variable implicit attitudes toward black faces than do white Americans, many black Americans have negative implicit attitudes too. Similarly, many gay men and women have negative implicit attitudes toward homosexuality; many women have negative implicit attitudes toward women, and so on.

The explanation for why people have implicit attitudes that differ from their explicit attitudes is controversial, but it’s widely accepted that it has a lot to do with the stereotypes that are prevalent in a culture.

If you live in the United States, you can’t help being bombarded with suggestions that there’s an association between black people and crime. If you live in Australia, you can’t help being bombarded with suggestions that women are highly emotional and irrational. These “suggestions” may not be delivered in the form of statements or claims; they are embedded in cultural stereotypes, in jokes and sitcoms, in the taken-for-granted background of everyday gossip.

They may be transmitted by people who don’t believe them, and who don’t even realise that they are transmitting the message (the fact that this kind of stereotype can be transmitted unconsciously helps to explain why parents who try to raise their children “gender-free” rarely meet with great success). Absorbing these stereotypes leads to the laying down of associations, which might result in activation patterns: being presented with a black face (say) activates related concepts (perhaps unconsciously) and the fact that they’re active affects mental processes.

That’s what an implicit association is – an association between one concept and another, meaning that having one active is likely to make the other active too, consciously or unconsciously.

Image from

Given that, as I have claimed, there are good grounds for identifying people’s real attitudes with their explicit attitudes, why does it matter what their implicit attitudes are? Here’s why – having an attitude activated affects our further thinking processes, and that can result in biased thought and behaviour.

Good people, people sincerely opposed to racism, for instance, can find themselves acting in ways that express racial biases. They can do this without even knowing it.

Since the 1970s, cognitive and social psychologists have gradually been revealing the extent to which our thought and behaviour is completely shot through by unconscious processes. The unconscious that psychologists study is not the Freudian unconscious, made up of thoughts we dare not acknowledge even to ourselves. Rather, it’s simply mental processing that is carried out efficiently by the brain below the level of awareness.

This is the processing that allows us to drive while thinking of other things, and which alerts us if an unexpected situation calls for attention (a dog runs out into the road for instance). It’s the processing that allows me to type while thinking about what to say, leaving both finger movements and grammar to sort themselves out.

Psychologists have demonstrated time and again that unconscious processes handle the bulk of execution of our movements and a great deal of the actual reasoning processes themselves. Things we are not conscious of seeing – which we can’t report, for instance – influence our subsequent behaviour, by altering how we process information and what comes to mind.

Things we’re conscious of may also influence us, without our being conscious either that or how they influence us.

Take the phenomenon of behavioural priming. In one famous experiment, the subjects unscrambled words to make sentences. One group of subjects got sentences that contained words that suggested elderly people: “wise”; “knits”; “Florida” (this was an American experiment); “grey”; “wrinkled”, and so on.

The other group got scrambled sentences that didn’t contain words like this. After the experiment was ostensibly over, the experiments timed how fast the participants moved as they left the lab. Participants who unscrambled sentences containing words that suggested elderly people walked more slowly than the participants in the other group.

What seems to have happened is that the words suggesting elderly people “primed” the elderly stereotype, and led to behaviour that was influenced by it. This effect may be independent of whether people believe that elderly people walk more slowly than younger. As a matter of fact, they probably did believe it. But the activation of the stereotype may be enough to influence behaviour.

Because the activation of the stereotype can be unconscious, and because its effects can be unconscious, we may not know that, or how, it is altering our behaviour. We may confabulate, as psychologists say, a good reason for what we are doing, when in fact the explanation is a bad reason, or no reason at all.

Human beings are creatures for whom reasons are important; when we don’t have a good reason to tell ourselves, we often make one up (without realising that’s what we’re doing).

One nice example comes from a study that asked male subjects to pick the photo of a woman they liked better from a pair of photos. In some trials, the experimenter used a magician’s trick to hand the subject the other photo. The subject was then asked to explain why he preferred it.

The majority of the subjects failed to notice the switch, and confabulated reasons why they chose the picture they had been given (saying, for example, that they chose the picture of the blonde “because I prefer blondes”, when in fact they had chosen the picture of the brunette). Because confabulation may involve the production of a plausible story, we may have good consciences, even when our actions express racist or sexist implicit attitudes.

Here’s an example of how this kind of thing can occur, from a 2005 American study. In this study, participants were asked to choose the better applicant for the job of police chief. There were two candidates. One was “street wise” while the other had more formal education. One was male, one was female. Some experimental subjects were given the choice between a male street wise applicant and a female formally educated applicant, while some got the options reversed, with the female applicant being the street wise one.

Here’s the interesting finding – both groups tended to pick the male applicant as the better qualified. They justified this choice by reference to the qualification the female lacked. So the participants who got the female street wise applicant preferred the male, because (they said) formal education matters more for police chief than street experience (after all, we’re not hiring a beat cop).

Meanwhile, participants who got the female formally educated applicant preferred the male because (they said) it is beat experience that matters for the job – how can you run a police department unless you have policing in your bones?

What’s going on here is that people’s implicit attitudes are altering their perception of what skills and qualifications are needed for a job. People judged that a particular qualification was relevant only because they had sexist assumptions, about women and policing. But they couldn’t detect the processes at work in them.

From their perspective, it looked as though they were making a judgement based on what qualifications they thought were required for police chief. They weren’t really: they were making a judgement based on gender, and justifying it, based on a confabulated theory about what qualifications were required for police chief. When they looked at their judgements, they saw a plausible story about qualifications.

How would they know that the story was driven by their implicit attitudes? Interestingly, in this study the experimenters asked the participants how confident they were that their judgement was objective. Those who were most confident that they were objective showed the most bias.

Image from

It took careful experimental work to show that the judgement was driven by sexist attitudes. We can’t say of any particular participant that their judgement was caused by sexism (though we have grounds for suspicion). It’s the overall pattern across all the groups that tells us that sexism was a very important factor. But obviously, when you or I are making a decision – deciding on job applicants, or who to vote for, or making up our minds about a newspaper story – we don’t have this kind of data available.

It’s difficult to counter the effects of implicit attitudes which conflict with our explicit beliefs. The first step is to recognise that we have them. By making Implicit Association Tests available, the people at Project Implicit have done us a service. Doing such a test induces humility. If (most) everyone recognised that they had some implicit biases, we might be less quick to condemn, less quick to blame others for their troubles, and a little more accepting that discrimination – not necessarily conscious – helps to explain gross inequalities.

We can also begin the hard work of trying to alter our biases. Here again, we must be humble: few people manage entirely to free themselves of biases. They are often acquired very early (we all learn the cultural stereotypes associated with gays, and women, and Aborigines, and other groups, very early, and learning them may be enough to cause some biases in unconscious processes). We counter these biases not by rational argument but by setting up new associations.

If the only Aborigines you ever encounter are those depicted on commercial news stations, your associations will probably never be positive. It’s only if the images change that new associations have a chance to form. People often complain about political correctness, but these complaints may be based (in part) on an unrealistically rosy picture of human rationality. Below the level of rational argument, stereotypes do their work.

It’s quite likely that implicit associations play a role in explicit negative attitudes toward particular people. Think of the incredible vitriol directed toward Julia Gillard. A confabulatory process may well be at work in some or even most of the people who chant “Ju-liar”. Negative implicit attitudes toward women may bias them toward thinking worse of her government and policies than they would have had she been a man. But because they have no access to the processes that colour their perceptions, they attribute the cause to her policies and her character.

Tony Abbott was incensed to be called misogynist recently. Perhaps his conscience, and those of many of his supporters, are clear: they look within to the causes of their negative assessments of Gillard and find only intense dislike of her policies, and therefore a strong negative attitude toward the woman who implements them. But they cannot tell, by looking within, whether their dislike of policies and person is not significantly strengthened by their implicit attitudes.

Our thought – all of us, even the most well-intentioned, the most careful, the most intelligent and well-educated – may be shot through with bias. The images with which we surround ourselves (and advertising is particularly pervasive and egregious in this regard, especially as concerns sexism) may produce stereotypes that subtly and not so subtly undermine our commitments to equality.

We never rise above these influences – all our thought remains utterly dependent on unconscious processes. We live in an environment that is polluted. We breathe this stuff in all the time. Perhaps it’s time for a cleanup.

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