Can we be biased about race when we are unaware we have been exposed to race in the first place?

Racial biases take hold early. Even three-month-olds prefer faces of their own race to those of others, while 4- and 5-year-old children already show prejudices against lower-status racial groups.

Much of this bias occurs unconsciously, says Galen Bodenhausen, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School and a professor of psychology at Northwestern University’s Weinberg College. Stereotypes based on race, gender, or other characteristics can change how we interpret and react to social experiences, without us even realizing it.

Public awareness of unconscious or “implicit” biases has increased substantially over the years. Discussions of implicit biases cropped up during the recent presidential election (were voters unconsciously biased against Hillary Clinton based on her gender?) as well as during recent protests of aggressive police behavior (are officers, even those who believe they are unbiased, more likely to be suspicious of black or Hispanic individuals than white ones?). 

But most discussions of implicit racial bias—in academic circles as well as in newspaper pages—explore the unconscious assumptions we make about people based on the racial group we consciously assign them to.

But do we have to consciously notice someone’s race in order to be influenced by it? What happens if we do not explicitly recognize that someone appears to be, say, Hispanic because our mind is not even aware of what it has seen? 

New research by Bodenhausen and his colleagues explores implicit bias from just this angle. And Bodenhausen, along with China- and Australia-based researchers Jie Yuan, Xiaoqing Hu, Yuhao Lu, and Shimin Fu, find that people can in fact be influenced by race even when they are completely unaware that racial information has been presented. Their finding has important implications for how people make judgments and decisions across a wide range of public and private domains.

“We should be willing to admit that we do not know our own minds as fully and transparently as we like to think,” says Bodenhausen.

Creating “Invisible” Faces

How did the team study the influence of racial information that people cannot consciously detect?

By exposing people to “invisible” faces.

As Bodenhausen explains, most of the prior research on unconscious racial biases relied on a technique called “masking.” The technique uses a stimulus (for example, an African American face) that is presented extremely briefly to study participants, followed immediately by a visual mask, such as a random-dot pattern. People generally report that they saw only the random dot pattern, not the face. 

“But some critics have argued that there may have been a brief, fleeting awareness of the face in this masking procedure,” Bodenhausen says. “When later asked about it, participants have typically forgotten about the face, but at the time it was presented, maybe they were at least very briefly aware of it.”

To ensure they were studying the influence of race under conditions where participants truly have no conscious—awareness of what they are seeing, the researchers used a new technique called “continuous flash suppression” (CFS). The approach involves showing distinct images to each eye. “Everyone has a dominant eye,” Bodenhausen says, “just like you have a dominant hand.” Thus, the team presented a colorful, dynamic, attention-grabbing pattern to participants’ dominant eye, and a face to their non-dominant eye.

“Because of something called ‘binocular rivalry,’” Bodenhausen says, “our conscious experience focuses initially on the image presented to the dominant eye.” That is, the dominant eye generally wins the competition between eyes for the brain’s attention. In the case of this research, that meant people lacked conscious awareness of the face, making it effectively invisible.

The team used CFS to present 70 Chinese university-student participants with faces of people from their own racial group (Chinese), as well as faces of people from another race (European White). Then they showed participants written words and measured how quickly they categorized these words as either positive (puppy, sunshine) or negative (cockroach, vomit).

From existing studies, the researchers knew that when people were consciously aware of seeing an “ingroup” face, they tended to categorize positive words more quickly, while conscious awareness of an “outgroup” face gave negative words the edge. Would such biases occur even when people have no conscious awareness of exposure to ingroup versus outgroup faces—or even to faces at all? 

Invisible Faces, Visible Bias

As the researchers predicted, even these “invisible” outgroup faces resulted in negative bias: people categorized negative words more quickly after unconscious exposure to faces of races other than their own.

“This result provides novel evidence that we can indeed be influenced by race without paying any conscious attention to it,” Bodenhausen says. “Our findings augment the case for believing that race can influence us in very automatic ways.” Interestingly, invisible ingroup faces did not produce evidence of bias, suggesting that positive reactions associated with seeing members of one’s own group may rely on at least minimal conscious awareness of the ingroup member. 

Bodenhausen emphasizes that additional research is needed to understand more fully the nature and boundaries of unconscious race biases.

He also points out the need to go beyond a “simple ingroup–outgroup or positive–negative dichotomy” in studies of racial and other types of bias. For example, people may have a positive emotional reaction to a woman yet remain skeptical that she would be a good leader. That is, bias toward women may not be simply a matter of disliking women in general, but rather of having stereotypes about what roles women should occupy. “It would be very interesting to see if these somewhat more nuanced kinds of biases would also show up in situations where gender information is not consciously visible,” Bodenhausen says. 

Keep This in Mind

Research psychologists have long known that many aspects of perception and judgment happen automatically, without our knowledge. Yet we remain very good at convincing ourselves that our own behavior and judgments are based instead on conscious deliberation about objective facts. Bodenhausen hopes the new research helps to change this. 

“Our study invites us to be a bit more realistic about the limits of our self-insight,” he concludes. “This may be a particularly important thing to recognize if we are in a position to make important decisions about the members of other racial groups.”