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How Bonding Beats Bias

We'll probably always be suspicious of outsiders. So for the new year, let's re-think who qualifies as a member of our group.
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(Photo: J.D.S/Shutterstock)

(Photo: J.D.S/Shutterstock)

Prejudice made a big comeback in 2015, and while we can blame Donald Trump, his rise is more a symptom than a root cause.

In times of insecurity and uncertainty, we identify more strongly with the groups we belong to—political, racial, generational, you name it—and view outsiders with heightened levels of suspicion. This "us vs. them" mindset may have been advantageous to our ancient ancestors, but for citizens of a multicultural nation in an interconnected world, it's dangerous and self-defeating.

So if our brains are wired to distinguish between our friendly, welcoming "in-group" and the untrustworthy, threatening "out-group," is there any way to reduce the resultant bias? Actually, yes, and it's a simple one: We can expand the way we define our "group."

Biases could shrink considerably with the discovery of a shared occupation, political preference, or sports team.

The latest research along these lines comes from a team led by psychologist W. Anthony Scroggins of the University of California–Santa Barbara. In the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Scroggins reports that unconscious bias toward African Americans can be reduced by simple reminders of your shared membership in some other, non-racial group.

"It is relatively easy to make shared group memberships salient," the researchers write, "because blacks and non-blacks share age, gender, occupational, political affiliation, college, and multiple other social category memberships." Pointing out such commonalities, they add, could be "a particularly appealing, practical approach to reducing bias."

Their first experiment featured 142 UCSB students of various ethnicities: 39 percent were white, 25 percent Asian, seven percent Latino, and seven percent "other." (Black students were excluded.) Each took a version of the Implicit Association Test, which reveals unconscious bias by measuring the time it takes participants to categorize pleasant and unpleasant words, just after using the same keystroke to categorize black or white faces.

In this modified version of the test, some participants used the standard method of categorizing faces (that is, black or white), while others were asked to categorize them as belonging to a "white UCSB student" or "black UCSB student."

"Implicit bias toward black students was reduced when the shared social category 'UCSB student' was made salient," the researchers report.

The researchers then conducted another version of the test in which participants categorized faces as either black or white, or as "black firefighter" or "white firefighter." They wanted to determine if noting that the person in question belonged to a highly respected, helpful profession would help to reduce implicit bias.

It did not.

"These results suggest that positivity alone is not sufficient for a social category label to reduce implicit bias," Scroggins and his colleagues report. "Only when the social category label also represented a shared group, not merely a positive group, was implicit bias reduced."

Of course, being a student at a specific school is only a part of our self image for a few years (passionate alumni excepted). But other such identities last a lifetime, and this research suggests they can be used to reduce implicit prejudice.

On an unconscious level, a white person may make certain assumptions about a newly acquainted African American. But this research suggests those biases could shrink considerably with the discovery of a shared occupation, political preference, or sports team.

It's simply a matter of seeing that person as "one of us."


Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.