Kicking the Prejudice Habit

A new strategy promises to help people unlearn stereotypes and change biased behaviour

The Essentials

In 1989, psychology professor Patricia Devine authored a pivotal journal article that changed the way many thought about prejudice and stereotyping. Devine wrote about the “prejudice habit”: the idea that people develop stereotypes and biased behaviours that become deeply ingrained “automatic processes.” Even those renouncing prejudice must consciously struggle to overcome unintentional biases and behave according to their beliefs. Since then, Devine, through her research, has tried to help people deal with the tussle between what their subconscious mind tells them is right and what their conscious mind tells them is unacceptable. Devine, now at University of Wisconsin-Madison, presented an overview of her work to graduate students at Smith School of Business. In this conversation with Smith Business Insight, she discusses what individuals can do to battle stereotypes and why initiatives such as affirmative action and colour-blind policies can backfire. 

An Excuse for Bias or Inspiration to Change?

My 1989 article is often mistakenly cited as saying that stereotyping is impossible to overcome because it's an automatic process. I did talk about stereotyping as an automatic process but the entire discussion was about the optimism of working hard to overcome these biases, that they could be unlearned.          

I think why my original article was so influential was the framing of prejudice as a habit. Think about it. You may see a woman crying and think she’s just being emotional. Or you see a black man on the street and think he’s lazy. You know nothing about these people: maybe her husband died and she's upset yet not just overly emotional, or the man is on a break from work. We just don’t know yet we have these kinds of reactions. So I think the idea of prejudice as a habit is very intuitive to people.          

One of my senior colleagues, when he read my article, said, You better be careful. It could give people an excuse for their prejudices. They could shrug their shoulders and say, it's not really my fault. But I was very clear this didn’t give people an excuse for their prejudices; it helped people to understand them. They had to decide as individuals if they were going to work to change their attitudes or not. This idea should inspire people because they can say, I‘ve broken other habits so maybe the problem of stereotyping is something I can work on.

A Plan to Break the Habit

One of the things I’ve noticed while doing research over the years is that even people who are motivated to overcome bias often don’t fully understand the challenges. They think being motivated is enough. They need to be made aware that they may possess implicit bias. They need to understand why bias persists and how it affects our behaviour: the eye contact we make, the interpersonal distance we establish, the judgments we make about others. And they need strategies that will help them reduce unintentional bias and break the link between associations and discrimination.

The intervention we created is a self-paced interactive slide show. First, we have people take an implicit association test (a measure designed to detect the strength of a person's automatic association with objects or concepts) to give them feedback on the strength of their implicit biases. They learn how biases are linked to societal outcomes. Then they’re given five different strategies that would help them overcome the prejudice habit. (Devine discusses the intervention in the accompanying video beginning at the 19:48 mark.)

Field-Testing the Strategy

We did a study using a variation of this intervention with University of Wisconsin faculty from the biological and physical sciences. Many departments are concerned about the underrepresentation of female faculty. There are questions about what contributes to the problem, but one issue people are concerned about is whether the environment is inhospitable to women. Part of what may contribute to this is implicit bias.           

So we put a group of faculty who volunteered for the study through a two-and-a-half hour workshop based on our intervention. Then we followed them over three months. During that time, we looked at the magnitude of implicit bias, which really didn’t decrease in this sample. But their concern about bias increased. Their sense that they had tools to combat bias increased, and their motivation to use those tools and reduce bias increased.

Then we looked at a university-wide survey on job satisfaction, which covered everything from how colleagues treat each other to how supportive the environment is. We found that those departments that had individual faculty members who attended the workshop reported on average that the department was more supportive. They said they felt more comfortable in the environment than those who were in the control group. To my mind, that’s pretty impressive.

Why Affirmative Action and Colour Blind Policies Can Backfire

One of the ways in which people try to create diversity is through affirmative action. But this just stigmatizes people. There are students on our campus, students of colour for example, some who have benefited from affirmative action policies and some who have not. If I'm from a minority group, I may wonder, do other people think I’m here because of affirmative action? That creates a very stressful dynamic.

Many people say, let's just encourage a colour-blind environment. Think what that would mean. I look at you and note that you're white. I look at him and see he’s black. I’m marking race and acting like I don’t notice it, but it's impossible not to notice. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that colour-blind policies are pretty disastrous. There are people who derive value from their group membership and you’re denying that by saying you’re colour blind.         

An alternative strategy is to celebrate diversity, multiculturalism. It has the right tone but it also makes race salient. Multiculturalism could work if people embrace that value, but it’s another one of those terms that turns a lot of people off and reminds them of things like affirmative action.       

The question we’ve tried to address is whether it’s possible to have people interacting without making race salient. We’ve looked at it in the context of a group problem-solving effort. We’ve tried to convince group members to see other members as a resource and that when the group benefits, the individuals will benefit. We say people come with varied backgrounds and that means they have something to bring to the table. It could be race. It could be gender. It could be socioeconomic status. Peoples’ experiences inform what they bring to the table.

Our preliminary data suggest that if people take this resources approach, they have more positive expectations for what everyone can contribute.

How To Create Cracks in the Wall of Prejudice

The biggest question I’d want to solve would be how to motivate those who aren’t motivated to respond without prejudice. There’s a whole group of people that, when we show them our intervention, just tune out. They don’t care.    

We’re working on a paper that introduces a measure called the motive to express prejudice. People who score high on this measure are just as committed to responding with prejudice as those who are motivated to overcoming bias. The important issue here is that they don’t think they're prejudiced. They believe they’re calling it as they see it. They don’t want to change. Because according to the way they look at the world, the stereotypes are right, blacks are lazy. These people wouldn’t call themselves prejudiced; they’d call themselves fair minded.

There's no way that people lecturing them on the misguided nature of their views will be successful. They put up their walls of resistance, and the harder you push, the more you cement them. The real question is, how do you create cracks in the wall that would allow some stuff to seep in. You can't do it in a way that's threatening.

You have to help them discover that the way they're thinking is actually inconsistent with the values they care about. For example, their bias means they're not equality minded, that they're not being fair. You have to shape their belief system to motivate that type of change. But it's got to be something they discover rather than having it foisted upon them. That would be the Holy Grail.

Interview by Alan Morantz