Can We Change Our Implicit Bias?

Rational reasoning may help to reduce automatic bias.

Posted Dec 11, 2019

Min Thein / Pexels
Source: Min Thein / Pexels

People sometimes exhibit implicit bias. One famous example is the unintentional preference for people who belong to the same (ethnical) group. Implicit bias is often seen as a stable, unconscious force that lingers in our head and messes up our daily behavior (much like a puppeteer controlling his marionette). From that perspective, it can seem nearly impossible to change our implicit biases. What can we learn from recent research on this topic?

How malleable is implicit bias?

Implicit bias can be seen as behavior that is systematically influenced (i.e., biased) by some factor in our environment, like another person’s skin color, in an automatic (e.g., unintentional or very fast) manner. Most research on this topic has focused on implicit bias in evaluation such as people’s automatic preferences for certain people or social groups. 

In early implicit bias research, it was often argued that people are unable to change their automatic preferences. For instance, one influential publication found that people could not change their automatic preference of recently encountered social groups even if they were told that their first impressions were based on wrong information. In contrast, their non-automatic preferences, as measured by simply asking people how they felt about the groups, did change immediately. Such dissociations fostered the idea that implicit bias is highly resistant to change and dependent on automatic processes that do not take our conscious beliefs into account.

Yet, more recent research challenged this view, showing that strong and immediate change in implicit bias is possible and depends on changes in beliefs and rational reasoning. In one study, we found that people did change their automatic preferences if they were first brought under hypnosis and then told that their initial impressions were based on wrong information.  

In another study, we observed that even deeply ingrained implicit biases that might have been present for many years can be immediately updated as the result of one new piece of information that presents reasonable arguments for change. Specifically, participants read a text about Mahatma Gandhi, a well-known historical figure who they had a strongly positive bias toward. This text told the alleged story that Gandhi prevented doctors from giving medication to his wife because of religious reasons and, as a result, his wife died. After reading this story, participants exhibited a strong and immediate shift in their automatic preference of Gandhi.

How can we change unwanted implicit bias?

Recent research showing robust change in implicit bias has built on the idea that this change requires potent manipulations of people’s beliefs (e.g., through hypnotic suggestions or texts with strong arguments). However, people might sometimes show implicit biases that they consider undesirable and, in this sense, contrasts with their beliefs. For instance, people might unwillingly engage in automatic behavior that disadvantages certain out-groups. If (change in) implicit bias depends on our beliefs, then why do we sometimes show unwanted implicit bias and how can we change such bias?

One newly popular perspective is that people often decide how to act in an automatic manner. Depending on the specific situation that one is in, certain beliefs may be more strongly activated and automatically incorporated into our behavior. For instance, a person might readily deny the belief that “out-group members are threatening” when in the supermarket, but still act upon this belief when walking down a dark alley.

From this perspective, changing unwanted implicit bias might not only require changing beliefs but also practicing the application of these beliefs in different situations. For instance, we might want to build arguments for why out-group members are trustworthy and repeatedly act in-line with this belief when seeing out-group members foster generalization.

Conclusions

Recent research has convincingly established that it is possible to change the implicit bias and that this change might depend on rational, belief-based processes. Though more research is needed, an effective technique might involve practicing the automatic application of desired beliefs in various real-life situations.

—Pieter Van Dessel

References

Gregg, Seibt, Gregg, A. P., Seibt, B., & Banaji, M. R. (2006). Easier done than undone: Asymmetry in the malleability of implicit preferences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 1-20. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.90.1.1

Van Dessel, P., & De Houwer, J. (2019). Hypnotic Suggestions Can Induce Rapid Change in Implicit Attitudes. Psychological Science,  30, 1362-1370. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797619865183

Van Dessel, P., Ye, Y., & De Houwer, J. (2019). Changing Deep-rooted Implicit Evaluation in the Blink of an Eye: Negative Verbal Information Shifts Automatic Liking of Gandhi. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 10, 266-273. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550617752064