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Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Be Biased

Don't Ask, Don't Tell: Implicit Biases Guide Behavior

I'm not biased, but we can't repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell because ...
   -- it will hurt troop morale and unit cohesion
   -- we should wait for the military's review
   -- some generals oppose the repeal
   -- it shouldn't be included in this legislation.
Choose your excuse. Isn't it nice when the world allows people to follow their biases while stating they are not biased?

The distinction between explicit and implicit attitudes may help explain inconsistent responses to Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Explicit attitudes are the beliefs and emotional responses people acknowledge holding about something, such as a group of people like gays and lesbians. Implicit attitudes, on the other hand, are the set of associations, beliefs, and emotional responses people have, but may not be aware of having. People learn to associate a great variety of ideas and reactions with groups of people. We learn these associations based on a lifetime of exposure to ideas - from media, family, friends, and school. Since these associations are gradually acquired, we may not be completely aware of them. Given the negative stereotypes regularly portrayed in the media, most people will have some negative ideas implicitly associated with gays and lesbians.

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But implicit attitudes do not always cause biased behaviors. Just because people have picked up implicit attitudes does not mean that they hold explicit attitudes that match. In addition, when we think about our behaviors, choices, and the things we say, we can act to be consistent with our explicit attitudes. Explicit attitudes can overrule implicit associations.

But sometimes implicit attitudes sneak through. Sometimes negative implicit attitudes guide behavior. In several studies, for example, John Bargh and his colleagues have primed implicit attitudes and given people opportunities to display the primed attitudes. In ambiguous situations, implicit attitudes can bias behavior, leading people to move slowly, behave aggressively, interpret actions as hostile, or move away from someone. In addition, priming implicit social attitudes and stereotypes is accomplished rather easily. To prime an implicit attitude, you simply present the object or group related to the attitude. Just mention gays and lesbians, and people will activate their implicit associations.

When watching the debate this year on repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell, I've been thinking about explicit and implicit attitudes. Some people have argued against repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell based on their explicit attitudes. These people believe that homosexuality is wrong and should not be countenanced. They argue loudly against gays and lesbians serving openly in the armed services (and against any other civil rights being extended to gays and lesbians). No surprises here: Their explicit beliefs match and guide their behaviors.

More interesting are those who have explicitly stated a lack of anti-gay prejudice but who have nonetheless argued against repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Let's assume some of them are telling the truth. They really don't want to be biased in how society treats gays and lesbians. Why then are they arguing and voting against the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't tell. Perhaps because some of these people hold more negative implicit attitudes. My colleague, Kristi Lemm, has found that even people who express positive explicit attitudes often hold more negative implicit attitudes toward gay men.

Simply activate that negative implicit attitude by talking about Don't Ask, Don't Tell and give people a chance to behave. They can then vote with their stated explicit attitudes to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell. They can also find any number of reasonable justifications to not vote for repeal: Justifications that allow their implicit attitudes to rule their behaviors.

Clearly the recent failure to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell was complex and political. But perhaps implicit attitudes moved some people to find a reason to vote against the repeal. Any excuse will do when implicit attitudes rule.

 

Ira E. Hyman, Jr., Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at Western Washington University.

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