Racial Bias May Have Decreased Over the Past Decade

Other biases lag behind.

Posted Jan 24, 2019

Although minority groups still face discrimination – in employment, education, medicine, and law enforcement, for example – U.S. society has seen extraordinary strides toward equal opportunity, fairness and justice since the first half of the twentieth century.

In 2008, Illinois Senator Barack Obama won the presidential election and became the leader of the United States. A once-unimaginable scenario, considering that before the Civil Rights Act many states had laws requiring segregation of African Americans from whites in public places, buses, schools, and restaurants.

Do these important changes in our society indicate that the prejudice and negative attitudes of Americans toward minority groups have decreased?

Studies using explicit measures (i.e., self-report items) seem to suggest that this the case. For example, a series of surveys on racial attitudes conducted by the National Opinion Research Center, the Gallup Poll and the Institute for Survey Research from 1960 to 2000 showed that attitudes toward African Americans became more favorable, especially with regard to integration in housing, education, public places, racial intermarriage and support for equal opportunity in employment.

However, as Tessa Charlesworth, the first author of a recent study on long-term change of attitudes published in the journal Psychological Science, says: “Measuring only explicit attitudes may not tell the full story of our minds.” Because explicit measures are thought to reflect relatively conscious and controllable evaluations, it is possible that people may have difficulty accurately reporting their opinions and preferences toward a group if they feel this opinion could be viewed negatively by others. For example, research shows that, while white people on average explicitly express racial egalitarian ideals, there is evidence that many of them hold implicit (i.e., unconscious) preferences for white people over black people.

What is the temporal trend of the implicit attitudes? Tessa Charlesworth and Mahzarin R. Banaji, respectively graduate student and full professor at Harvard University, analyzed the patterns of change and stability in implicit attitudes — as measured by the Implicit Association Test (IAT) — of more than 4 million U.S. volunteers collected over the last decade at the Project Implicit website, a non-profit and international organization that aims at educating the public about implicit biases and creating a “virtual laboratory” to investigate implicit social cognition on the Internet.

In their study, they showed that negative associations based on race decreased over the last decade. They also noted that changes in implicit racial attitudes were not linear: Implicit racial attitudes were relatively stable in the early years and began to decrease only starting from about 2012. In addition, using a statistical method commonly applied in economics for forecasting market trends, the authors showed that implicit racial attitudes were predicted to pass neutrality (i.e., no bias) possibly as early as 54 years from now. However, the authors also noted that the forecasts for racial attitudes included the possibility of bias increasing over time (or remaining stable).

Racial bias is not the only attitude that authors investigated in their study. They also examined implicit attitudes for sexuality, skin tone, age, disability and body weight.

They found that implicit sexuality attitudes revealed the largest change of any attitude analyzed in their study and were predicted to pass neutrality as early as nine years. Similarly, implicit attitudes for skin tones exhibited a decreasing trend, although the estimate to reach neutrality was much further away, at 135 years.

However, in contrast with these results, the authors showed that implicit attitudes for age, disability and body weight exhibited different temporal trends. In particular, implicit age and disability attitudes were stable over time and were not predicted to disappear within the next 150 years, whereas implicit weight attitudes revealed movement away from neutrality.

But why did only certain biases decrease in the past decade?

“Based on previous theory from explicit attitudes, we speculate on three factors that may help explain the variations,” explains Charlesworth.

“First, if an implicit attitude is held very strongly and has a high initial bias, it will be harder to shift. Indeed, the three attitudes that have decreased over the past decade all show weaker initial biases than the three attitudes that have remained stable or increased over the past decade. Second, if an implicit attitude is closely related to its explicit counterpart (that is, if there is a high correlation between implicit and explicit measures of the attitude), then it may be more accessible in the mind and therefore more susceptible to persuasive influences and social change. The three decreasing biases indeed show stronger correlation between implicit and explicit attitudes than the three stable or worsening biases. Third, if a bias is widely discussed and made a societal priority to address — as is the case for sexuality, race, and skin-tone — then change in that bias is more likely. In contrast, when biases are relatively little discussed and debated — as is the case for age or disability bias — the attitudes may remain relatively more stable.”

This study provides the first evidence that implicit attitudes can change over decade-long spans and show different trends. They can change toward neutrality but they can also show stability or increase their negativity. “It therefore remains in our hands,” Charlesworth and Banaji conclude, “to understand and decide what to do in order to move all attitudes in the direction of our equitable intentions.”


Charlesworth, T. E. S., & Banaji, M. R. (2019). Patterns of Implicit and Explicit Attitudes: I. Long-Term Change and Stability From 2007 to 2016. Psychological Science, Jan 3: 095679761881308