We Are Influenced by Racial Information Even When We Are Not Aware of Its Presence
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Policy Apr 10, 2017

We Are Influ­enced by Racial Infor­ma­tion Even When We Are Not Aware of Its Presence

Many of us acknowl­edge that implic­it racial bias exists, but the prob­lem goes deep­er than we think.

We are influenced by racial biases and information even when we are not aware of their presence.

Based on the research of

Jie Yuan

Xiaoqing Hu

Yuhao Lu

Galen Bodenhausen

Shimin Fu

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.

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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.” 

Featured Faculty

Galen Bodenhausen

Kellogg Professor of Marketing; Lawyer Taylor Professor of Psychology and Marketing, Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences

About the Writer

Sachin Waikar is a freelance writer based in Evanston, Illinois.

About the Research

Jie Yuan, Xiaoqing Hu, Yuhao Lu, Galen V. Bodenhausen, and Shimin Fu. 2017. “Invisible own- and other-race faces presented under continuous flash suppression produce affective response biases,” Consciousness and Cognition, 48, 273–282.

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