When individuals are asked to report how much they prefer Black people to White people they might report egalitarian feelings, reporting no preference for either social group. However, psychological research has shown that sometimes individuals’ automatic evaluations do not reflect these explicit endorsements. In fact, sometimes individuals have preferences they might not publicly endorse, or even be consciously aware they hold. For example, an analysis of more than 900,000 completed Implicit Association Tests (IAT) at the Project Implicit website suggested that more than 70% of test takers associated White people with good and Black people with bad more strongly than the reverse. A popular question is whether these associations can be changed, and how. Brian Nosek and I contributed new research to this question in a new article that is scheduled to appear in a special issue of Social Psychology.
Our research followed up on important demonstration by Buju Dasgupta and Tony Greenwald in a 2001 article. They found that implicit preferences for Whites compared to Blacks can be reduced by first exposing participants to admired Black and disliked White individuals such as Jackie Robinson and Jeffrey Dahmer. Their straightforward approach had a substantial effect on implicit preferences, and has potential for practical use because of its simplicity.
We initiated our research to examine the mechanisms that were contributing to the change in IAT effects in Dasgupta and Greenwald’s paradigm. Like many social psychologists, we believed that participants’ showed a reduced pro-White bias due to the exposure to admired Black individuals. As a result, in Experiment 1, participants only viewed positive exemplars prior to measuring their implicit bias. Despite having a very large sample (1,303 participants), we were unable to obtain a malleability effect. We conducted four more studies to replicate the original effect and figure out what factors are important for it to occur. In a follow-up study, we increased our procedure to more closely mirror Dasgupta and Greenwald’s experiment by exposing participants to admired Black and disliked White individuals. In addition, we gave participants repeated exposure to the individuals. With these procedural changes, we were able to successfully replicate the malleability finding, though our effect was much smaller than the one Dasgupta and Greenwald reported. To ensure our effect was real, we ran the same study and again found that participants viewing disliked White individuals and admired Black individuals showed less pro-White bias.
Having replicated the malleability effect, we turned our attention to why our effect was smaller than the one first reported by Dasgupta and Greenwald. Our first thought was that because our studies had been run on the Internet and not in the laboratory, our studies did not have an experimenter present. We hypothesized that an experimenter’s presence might increase the participants’ feelings of being judged. As a result, laboratory participants may be more motivated to show less bias. To test, we ran the same experiment both on the Internet as well as in the laboratory. Our results indicated that there were no differences between the samples, suggesting that participants in the laboratory did not show less implicit pro-White bias than Internet participants despite having an experimenter provide the materials in person.
Our research suggests that simply exposure to admired Blacks may not be enough for malleability to occur. Rather, repeated exposure and including negative White exemplars may be necessary to reduce bias. Together, these studies suggest that the original malleability effect is real, but weaker than previously reported.