The notion that dangerous desires and unwelcome fears lurk in our unconscious minds is a cornerstone of Freud's theory and underlies the work of practicing psychoanalysts even today. Attacks on Freudian theory by research psychologists challenge this proposal, but accumulating evidence from surprising places suggests that he may have been onto something important.
The surprising places are social psychology labs, and the people conducting this research would hardly be considered defenders of the Freudian doctrine. In these labs, social psychologists investigating the roots of people's prejudices became increasingly dissatisfied with the so-called "explicit" attitudes expressed by participants in their studies. In the decades following the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., people in these studies (typically college-age individuals) have become increasingly reluctant to espouse holding sexist, racist, or any form of "ist" attitudes. When you ask them to rate their attitudes toward targeted groups, they invariably present themselves as fair, open-minded, and tolerant. However, prejudice has hardly disappeared from the public landscape. For example, much of the debate over immigration laws in the U.S. is thought to tap into prejudicial attitudes.
In trying to break the conundrum of asking people to state, honestly, their prejudices and biases, social psychologists discovered that they could tap into people's "implicit" - or unconscious- attitudes with a simple reaction time task. In the Implicit Association Test (IAT), you are shown a list of words which you must rate as "bad" or "good." You are then shown pictures of people who fit into a certain category (such as European American and African American) and asked to indicate which category the faces belong to. Your decision times are measured in both phases. Then comes the critical phase where your reaction time is measured for combinations of faces and words. If you harbor implicitly negative attitudes, you will take longer to respond to the pairing of an African American face and a "good" word than to the same face and a "bad" word.
In many cases people who show up on paper-and-pencil questionnaires as harboring ill will toward no one turn out to have implicitly negative attitudes. By tapping into the realm of unconscious biases researchers can avoid the characteristic problem of self-report inventories where almost everyone wants to look like an angel.
What's perhaps most surprising about the findings from the IAT is that people who themselves are from one or another minority group hold implicitly negative attitudes toward their own group, not just that of others. It's one sort of problem when we hold hidden negative biases toward others, but quite another when we start to internalize these biases. If we lose our belief in our own abilities to be good, successful, and effective, the negative expectations will come true. It's especially pernicious when we don't even realize we hold these views.
Our brains may also show reactions to these unconsciously triggered attitudes. In one study, IAT performance was correlated with activation of the amygdala, the area of the brain associated with fear. Higher activation of the amygdala was found in people whose implicit attitudes toward people of another race. Here the usual "correlation does not equal causation" theme comes to mind. Maybe higher amygdala activation causes the negative attitudes rather than attitudes causing activation. Maybe some third factor comes into play. Whatever the path of causality, though, the finding shows the extent to which negative attitudes become internalized, even tapping into our brain activation.
Returning to the question of why negative implicit attitudes toward your own group are detrimental, if you are biased against the group of which you are a part this can erode your self-esteem. In my study of fulfillment among midlife adults in which I followed the same people from college through their 50s, I identified a pathway of development that I called the "Downward Slope." These were people who made decisions in life that they later regretted and led to their feeling low on my target measures of self-fulfillment. Surprisingly, some of them were successful in all outward indicators but at a deeper, internal, level they felt they had failed. When we start to see ourselves negatively at this deep level we can't enjoy the happiness that logic would suggest we should feel.
Monitoring and changing implicit attitudes is, by definition, a tough prospect. However, psychologists Olson and Fazio (2006) working with undergraduates found that they could recondition negative implicit associations.
You can start to change your own implicit attitudes by taking these 3 steps:
1. Take the IAT for your own personal category based on gender, age, race, weight, or one of the many categories available.
2. Reflect on experiences you've had with stereotype threat. Do you fold under pressure in situations relevant to your particular "category"?
3. Identify your own pathway by taking the online Pathways Test.. Follow it up by evaluating your Action Plan. You'll find these on the Interactive Resources page of my website.
By definition, unconscious biases aren't available to conscious awareness. But you can start the process by starting to dig around and trying to reverse some of these internal blockages to your fulfillment.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2010
Olson, M. A., & Fazio, R. H. (2006). Reducing automatically activated racial prejudice through implicit evaluative conditioning. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32, 421-433.
Stanley, D., Phelps, E., & Banaji, M. (2008). The neural basis of implicit attitudes. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17, 164-170.