Back in 1971, a controversial comedy, All in the Family, captivated America. The show featured a blue collar, World War II veteran, Archie Bunker, who was a prototypical bigot. Set in the social turmoil of the early 70’s, the show examined topics from racial equality to woman’s rights to homosexuality. Archie was an ill-informed, outspoken figure who verbally attacked anyone who would constitute a protected class today in corporate America. He was completely unapologetic in his approach, spewing racial and ethnic slurs openly with no concern for the identity of those around him.
The show was a runaway success, leading the Nielsen ratings for five straight years and becoming a cultural touchstone. The name, Archie Bunker became synonymous with a bigoted individual. It’s easy for us to laugh at Archie’s antics. He represents a comical figure; a less violent version of a Klansman or a neo-Nazi. But while overtly bigoted people are rare, do more nuanced forms of prejudice persist today? Is it possible that many people hold subconscious stereotypes that can result in discriminatory behavior? The unfortunate answer from behavioral psychology research is that this is very likely to be so.
Before we consider the research on stereotypes and discrimination, it’s important to understand some fundamental ideas regarding the operation of our mind. The last 40 years of behavioral psychology research has confirmed that we often have little access into subconscious processes that influence our emotions, judgements and behaviors. While we feel as if we are consciously making conclusions and decisions, we are often driven by subliminal stimuli and unconscious memories. While this may sound supernatural or new age, it is really based on sound scientific research.
Let’s examine some of the research in this space. Bargh, Chen and Burrows (1996) conducted an amazing study at NYU regarding social priming. In this study, subjects were asked to solve word jumbles; sentences with scrambled words. Unknown to the subjects, the researchers had chosen three different types of word categories. In one test group, the words reflected rudeness such as rude, bother or disturb. Another test group received words reflecting politeness such as respect, polite or behaved. A third group received neutral words with no linkage to rudeness nor politeness.
After the students completed their puzzles, as instructed, they proceeded to leave the test area to find the experimenter. When they found the experimenter, he was engaged in a discussion with a fellow researcher who was pretending to be another test subject. The pretend subject acted confused and engaged the researcher in a lengthy set of questions regarding how to perform the word puzzle test. The experimental condition that this was designed to test was the willingness of the first subject to interrupt the researcher and the pretend subject.
Fascinatingly, there was a dramatic difference between the three subject groups regarding their willingness to interrupt the researcher’s conversation. Less than 20% of the group that solved “polite” puzzles interrupted the researcher within 10 minutes. For the “neutral” group, the rate was just under 40%. For the group solving puzzles with “rude” words, the rate of interruption was an amazing 65%. The conclusion of the research was that the tone of the words subconsciously primed the subjects to behave in a particular fashion.
In the word puzzle research, the subjects did consciously see the priming words. Is it possible that words we don’t consciously see could also influence our behaviors and judgements? Research regarding subliminal priming seems to confirm this dynamic. Here’s how the research is conducted. Subjects are put in front of a computer screen and told to press a button every time they see a flash of light. This is similar to the peripheral vision tests used by motor vehicle agencies. Unbeknownst to the subject, the “flash” they are seeing is actually a word, that is quickly masked by a series of X’s. The word is only visible for 100 milliseconds and is not consciously seen by the subjects.
In one dramatic example of social priming using this testing protocol (Bargh and Pietromonaco 1982), subjects were primed with 3 different test cases designed to evoke hostility. In a neutral condition, subjects were exposed to 100 words that had no reference to hostility or aggressiveness. In a moderate condition, 20% of the words had some hostile connotation. In the high condition, fully 80% of the words were hostile in nature.
In the second part of this experiment, subjects were now asked to review a hypothetical scenario regarding an individual named Donald. The scenario was constructed to present Donald acting in a manner that was ambiguous regarding hostility. Donald was an individual that was withholding his rent money until his landlord repainted his apartment. Depending on an individual’s mindset, one could view Donald as confrontational or principled. In a landmark finding, the subjects were inclined to view Donald as more hostile if they had been subliminally exposed to the aggressive set of words.
Following on this research, another experiment (Devine 1989) looked to apply this priming concept to the invocation of stereotypes. Instead of words related to hostility, the subjects were subliminally shown words associated with negative African American stereotypes such as lazy or watermelon. The subjects were then given the same Donald problem from the hostility experiment. Sure enough, those subjects exposed to more African American stereotype words rated Donald as more hostile. The researchers concluded that the priming automatically triggered an additional African American stereotype of hostile behavior.
In an additional amazing study by (Bargh et al. 1996), building on the research of Devine, subjects were tested to see if behavior associated with negative African American stereotypes could be subliminally triggered by seeing a Black face. The subjects (non-African American college students) were told that they were being given a test to rapidly determination odd vs. even numbers of figures. Similar to the previously described experiments a subliminal prime followed by a mask was presented on a computer screen. However, in this case groups were shown either a series of Black faces or White faces as the subliminal prime. In both cases, the face was of a young male.
The “mask” was a series of 4 to 20 circles. The subjects needed to quickly determine whether it was an even or odd number of figures. After 130 trials, the computer displayed an error indicating that there was an problem saving test data and to consult the experimenter. The experimenter then informed the subject that they would need to start the task over from the beginning. The subject was videotaped during this process to determine their reaction to the frustrating news.
The experimenter (who was unaware of whether the subject had viewed White or Black faces) rated the subject across four dimensions (irritability, anger, hostility and uncooperativeness). A separate researcher (also unaware of the subject’s subliminal prime) viewed the videotape and also rated the subject across the four dimensions. Interestingly, the experimenter’s in-person observation lined up almost identically with the assessment of the videotape of the subject.
The subjects that had been subliminally primed with the Black face were rated on average 30% higher across the measures of hostility. As an additional part of the experiment, subjects were measured by a questionnaire to determine their level of racism. This followed a well researched process using a tool known as the Modern Racism Scale. Disappointingly, there was no measurable difference in performance on the test related to the level of an individual’s inherent prejudice. That is, even individuals that tested low for racism, on average, acted with greater hostility after subliminally being primed with a Black face.
A number of other studies have replicated the findings of Bargh and Devine. But to some, the research may seem hypothetical or lacking in real-world application. Is there evidence in practice that people will be motivated by racial stereotypes when making important decisions? A recent study by a Harvard research team disturbingly supports this conclusion.
In the study (Bertrand and Mullainathan 2004), close to 5000 fictitiousness resumes were sent to over 1300 employment ads. The twist was that some resumes contained names typically associated with Whites (e.g. Emily Walsh) while others used names typically associated with Blacks (e.g. Lakisha Washington). The results were dramatic. On average, the resumes with typical Black names received a 50% lower response rate! Specifically, the “White” resumes received a call back for every 10 submissions. The “Black” resumes required 15 submissions to receive a call back. This disparity held across a number of other measures. The White resumes received significantly greater responses irrespective of job type (executive vs. administrative), type of company (corporate vs. government) or size of hiring organization.
The research on stereotyping is certainly sobering. Seeing that people who are not consciously racist can be subliminally driven to racist behaviors and judgements is troubling. It has profound implications for a broad array of management functions including hiring, promotions and terminations. If there is a silver lining, some research indicates that people who are motivated to suppress stereotypes can in fact do so. However, the research also indicates that this requires strong self-monitoring and constant vigilance.
Forty years after the debut of All in the Family, there is clear evidence of improved equality in America. African Americans and other minorities that faced traditional discrimination have achieved success across a number of highly visible domains. Blacks, Latinos, women and gays are better represented in leadership positions in government and corporate settings. The overt bigotry of an Archie Bunker, while not eliminated, is more of a fringe phenomenon. Yet with this progress, the findings of numerous scientific studies should keep us ever vigilant. As a fair minded person, always be aware of your tendency to have your thinking tainted by historical stereotypes, negative media messages and the comments of associates. When you’ve reached a strong judgement about an individual, take a step back to see if your reasoning is sound and consider if you’ve been subliminally influenced.