April 25, 2011 -- Deciding whom we will trust, especially with our money, may be shaped more by unconscious racial biases than many of us would like to admit, according to new research published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"We strive as a culture to not let race bias be a significant factor in the way we choose to do things and on an individual level, we all assume that our beliefs reflect our actions, but we have to be aware of the fact that this won't always be the case," says Elizabeth Phelps, a psychologist at New York University who was a co-author of the study.
Psychologists have shown that there is a distinction between the attitudes, beliefs, and self-perceptions we consciously, or explicitly, hold, and those that we may hold without thinking about them. Sometimes these conscious and unconscious attitudes match each other -- other times not.
In Monday's study, researchers focused on the extent to which unconscious racial biases may affect explicit preferences when we make decisions about whom to trust. Researchers measured implicit and explicit racial bias among 50 racially diverse participants using an Implicit Association Test (IAT) and questionnaires assessing self-reported racism.
Using these results as points of comparison, researchers then asked participants to rate the "trustworthiness" of nearly 300 faces (they were shown people of many races, though only scores for blacks and whites were used in the analysis). Then they had participants play a trust-based economic reward game. Participants were shown a photo of their supposed "partner" in the game, who was either black or white.
Unconscious Trust and Daily Decisions
Overall, if people showed an unconscious bias toward whites, they were more likely to rate whites as trustworthy when asked, and more likely to risk more money with white partners. The same bias was true in the minority of participants who showed a pro-black bias.
At first it might seem obvious: people who are unconsciously biased to prefer whites are going to be more likely to trust whites, and vice versa with those who prefer blacks. But the effect runs more deeply than we usually realize, said Leslie Hausmann, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh.
"Despite study after study showing that implicit bias exists, it's still something that a lot of people don't internalize within their own lives and behavior. There's a reluctance to admit that in our day-to-day lives, we have this and it matters," she said.
The study authors have also measured this type of implicit prejudice in doctors serving minority populations, and the doctors are always shocked to realize that their unconscious bias affects what medications they prescribe to patients of different races, said Mahzarin Banaji, a co-author who is a psychologist at Harvard University.
"This is not overwhelming evidence for racism," says Joachim Krueger, a social psychologist at Brown University, because at a group level, there was no discrimination. In the small "society" of the study participants, blacks and whites were given practically equal ratings of trustworthiness.
That doesn't mean that we shouldn't take the individual discrepancies between unconscious thought and prejudiced action to heart, says Banaji.
This tension between an unconscious prejudice and a conscious desire to be a tolerant person is an age-old issue.
"Humans have always struggled with this: am I leading my daily life in such a way that my behavior lines up with the values I have? Acknowledging this bias is part of bringing our behavior in line with intentions," Banaji said.