Psychologists Seek to Change Unconscious Racial Bias

Researchers Look for Ways to Address Unconscious Racial Bias

For decades, psychologists have been looking for the root causes of racial bias or stereotyping. Many have been startled to discover that, even when people consciously pay close attention to their actions and perceptions, most (if not all) still subconsciously make judgments based on ethnicity or skin color. As these actions have been highlighted in the acts of law enforcement officers, researchers have put a greater focus on understanding and changing the unconscious or unknown factors that lead to race-based distinctions and decisions.

It’s not that researchers have just concluded that much bias is subconscious. Until the last 15 years, though, most researchers targeted their efforts on conscious acts of racial bias or profiling. Evidence now suggests, though, that to have a meaningful impact, any therapy or education must address the subconscious tendency toward bias.

The research is still in the early stages, but researchers have found that certain strategies have led to changes, some temporary, others more permanent. Calvin Lai, a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia, has conducted research that shows that something as simple as showing subjects pictures of famous and well-respected persons of color—Mahatma Ghandi or Nelson Mandela, for example—next to white persons considered universally evil—Hitler, Stalin—brought about a measurable change in racial bias.

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