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Paul Verhaeghen, Ph.D.
Paul Verhaeghen Ph.D.

Prime and Prejudice: Why We Are All a Little Bit Racist

Can culture take the blame?

(Co-written with Shelley Aikman)

Everyone, or so the song goes, it a little bit racist.

This can be easily verified by giving folks one of those the sneaky tests we psychologists excel at designing. Lexical decision, for instance. Is 'nug' a word? What about 'gun'? How long does it take you to make that decision? Now, let's prime you. Let's precede the word 'gun' by the word 'black'. See, now you're faster: When you think of black, you think of violence. What if we first show you the word 'white'? No speed-up at all. You are now officially racist: Only black makes you think of violent things. 'Woman'-'weak'? Bingo! 'Old'-'forgetful'? Indeed!

This stereotype priming effect, so many a social psychologist claims, reflects real attitudes in the real individual's head. It is, in a sense, a gut-level reaction, and gut-level reactions, so the reasoning goes, show who you really are.

Is this so?

One curious finding in the social psychology literature on prejudice is that, tested with these priming measures, the supposedly downtrodden agree to the stereotype with remarkable ease - black men unflinchingly endorse the view that blackness equals violence, women are quick to find women weak, and the one thing older folks happily remember is that they forget.

This finding has always puzzled us. Why would these folks so willingly put themselves down?

Something is afoot here.

Now, it turns out that if you dig a bit into the literature, you can find quite a few other oddities of priming. Show folks a lion, and they recognize the word ‘stripes' much faster. Weird: Lions don't sport stripes. Lions are, however, associated with stripes through linkages - lions tend to have tigers as zoomates, and share the savannah with zebras. Lion: meet stripes.

The technical term for this type of association is (semantic) co-occurrence. That which is presented together often will stick in the mind together. (Plus, we humans are natural pattern detection machines. Throw a handful of diamond dust in the sky and we will see constellations. Any basketball fan will tell you the hot hand exists. Any gambler in Vegas knows her lucky streaks.)

This lion-stripe business: Maybe something similar is going on in this prejudice-priming stuff? In its journey through life, the mind gobbles up all kinds of information about how things hang together; when requested, it spits it all back out, no malice intended. How often don't you hear that blacks are more athletic, that women are caring creatures, or that older folks are wise? (Positive stereotypes, but stereotypes nevertheless.) Hear it often enough and you might start believing it.

This idea of primed prejudice as semantic co-occurrence struck us as so simple and so utterly plausible that someone else surely must have done that study, we reasoned. Turned out nobody had. There were plenty of musings, but no hard data.

The study itself (now published in the British Journal of Social Psychology) was trivial to design: What we needed was a set of prime-target pairs that reflect prejudices (like old-wise, black-athletic, woman-caring; old-forgetful, black-violent, woman-weak), the associative value of those pairs, and then we needed a set of non-social pairs that matched those values (something like lion-stripe, or, probably better, lion-mane). In the end, that turned out to be not trivial at all. Mike Jones from Indiana University helped us out by making his database for semantic co-occurrence, BEAGLE, available. (BEAGLE calculates the co-occurrence of words in a database that supposedly encompasses everything the average undergraduate student in the US has read by the time they enter college; it has no fewer than 90,000 lexical entries. Thorough.) When we checked out prime-target pairs, we quickly found out that there are very few associations in American English that top the typical prejudiced pairs (say, black-poor, or black-violent) in associative strength—our very first cue that we were on to something.

Just to make sure, we replicated our experiment three times, each time with a different group of folks, and each time with a different task—Is the target ('poor' or 'poar') a word? Is the target something good or bad? Do prime and target fit together?

We found the same result in all three experiments: Folks are faster to answer any of our three questions when the pair of words is more closely related, but the nature of the pair doesn't make the slightest difference (i.e. summer-sun primes just as nicely and just as much as black-poor—these pairs have about equal associative value). And the speed of response to our prejudice pairs did not correlate at all with the standard measures of racism, sexism and ageism our subjects filled out afterward.

The implication is clear. We may all be racist and sexist and ageist at heart, but this is not our doing—we have merely internalized what we have been hearing and reading and seeing our whole life, that is, we are thirsty sponges, and we pick up the patterns that culture happily spoonfeeds us, and we haplessly store it all in our thirsty memory banks, gladly retrieving the connection and filling in the blanks.

One conclusion from this study is clear. For most of us, the racist/sexist/ageist inside us may not be a monster of our own making; s/he is not a reflection of who we are, but a reflection of where we've been. Being faster to associate ‘black' with ‘violence' doesn't imply that you are a hardcore racist, it sadly just means you're American.

This conclusion is both reassuring and sad.

Reassuring, because now we can understand why we are all a little bit racist (and sexist, and ageist). And understanding is half the battle against it.

Sad, of course, because we indeed are all a bit racist (and sexist, and ageist). There is power in knowing, fortunately. Those gut feelings do well up from time to time—you walk through town late at night, a tall black man approaches, you feel like crossing the street, and you realize you wouldn't have this feeling this if the man were white. See these gut reactions for what they are: Responses you've acquired from too much exposure to your culture. What's important is ultimately not what you feel, but how you deal with those responses, how you transcend them to meet your neighbor as a real human being rather than as a member of a category.

Sad too because it shows how much influence the media might have on our implicit knowledge structure.

Doubly sad, perhaps, when you consider the state of these media, and how little sense of responsibility there seems to be concerning these issues. (On the contrary, maybe: The more media pundits play into preconceived notions, the larger their audience, the higher their ratings?)

Maybe triply sad because results like these could be easily misused to excuse inexcusable behavior. The consequences of bias and prejudice and hate are all too real, even if their origin must at least in part lie in the surrounding culture. Society's influence on its individual constituents, however, does not absolve these individuals from their own personal responsibilities.

Perhaps this, then, is one more reason for joy: Now that we know the Beast is there, and It's not our fault, we can at least look It squarely in the eye, and scare It away, or else tame It.

About the Author
Paul Verhaeghen, Ph.D.

Paul Verhaeghen, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Georgia Institute of Technology.

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