Implicit (Unconscious) Race Bias and the 2008 Presidential Election: Does Obama Stand a Chance? -- Part I

02/04/2008 11:59 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

For the past several months, Jeffrey Rachlinski (Cornell Law School professor) and I have been working on an article about unconscious race & gender bias and the presidential election. I think, maybe wrongly, that this work is pretty interesting.

One of our basic arguments is that Obama has a serious uphill battle on his hand, which I assume most people know. But I don't think people make sense of this through the lens of implicit race bias. Political scientists and political psychologists have found that whites tend not to vote for black political candidates. Thus, the success of black candidates is positively correlated with the proportion of blacks in the population. Where there are more blacks in an electoral area, black candidates are more likely to be elected to office. In areas dominated by whites, black electoral success is rare. Not all researchers have found an interactive effect of voter and candidate race. Those who have not, however, have indicated one major methodological shortcoming of their, respective, studies -- the possibility that study respondents were not honest about their opposition to black candidates. As such, a better predictor of the role that race plays in voter decision-making would be their implicit attitudes about race. With that in mind, let me make a few points:

An implicit construct is "the introspectively unidentified (or inaccurately identified) trace of past experience that mediates [the category of responses that are assumed to be influenced by that construct]." Implicit cognition reveals mental associations that people do not want to or are unable to report. This is because such cognitions might conflict with expressly-held values or beliefs, or such cognitions may be politically incorrect. Moreover, implicit cognitions reveal information that is not readily available to introspection for people with a desire to retrieve and/or express such information. Therefore, the key feature of implicit measures of attitudes is that subjects are often unaware that their attitudes are being measured and are thus unable to exert conscious control over their responses. The Implicit Association Test (IAT) is a popular measure of the relative strength of associations between pairs of concepts, including positive/negative attributes and race.

A large percentage of whites harbor anti-black/pro-white biases -- some 70-90%. That means that they demonstrate an implicit preference for white over black, manifest as faster responding for the white/pleasant combination than for the black/pleasant combination. These results are quite robust as seen in individual experiments with dozens of subjects as well as in web-based studies of hundreds of thousands of individuals.

Implicit racial bias is not a mere abstraction. It is linked to the deepest recesses of the mind -- particularly the amygdala. The amygdala is a part of the brain that is involved in emotional learning, perceiving novel or threatening stimuli, and fear conditioning. Neuroscience research indicates that whites' amygdalas are activated far more when they are subliminally shown black faces as compared to white faces. Moreover, the degree of amygdala activation is significantly correlated with participants' IAT scores. Implicit racial bias is also implicated in numerous forms of seemingly benign as well as consequential behavior.

One important study that should be mentioned demonstrated how "racialized" names trigger racial schemas. Researchers responded to more than 1300 help-wanted ads in Boston and Chicago with fictitious resumes. The resumes were crafted to be comparably qualified with the only difference being that half of the resumes were randomly assigned stereotypically black names (e.g., Lakisha Washington). The other half were assigned "white" names (e.g., Emily Walsh). The white resumes received 50% more callbacks. Jerry Kang (UCLA law professor) rearticulated these results in terms of racial schemas such that employers use the names of applicants to categorize applicants into racial categories. Once the names are racially mapped, some set of negative racial meanings are automatically activated. In turn, these stereotypes and prejudices result in fewer callbacks for blacks.

Implicit racial attitudes not only predict behavior, generally; they also predict voting behavior. I think most folks can understand that political conservativism is positively correlated with automatic associations between black/bad and white/good. However, among Democrats, those who hold the least favorable implicit attitudes towards racial minorities are nearly four times less likely to prefer a racial minority candidate over a perceived white candidate. This is compared to Democrats who hold the most positive implicit views towards a racial minority candidate.

A voter's implicit biases do not have to dictate how they will vote in the 2008 election or any other election. Individuals who harbor implicit biases, and who wish to be unfettered of those biases, may de-bias themselves and cast their vote based on where candidates stand on issues and not their race or gender. Current models of prejudice and stereotype reduction contend that the reduction of such attitudes require that individuals must: 1) be aware of their bias; 2) be motivated to change their responses because of personal values, feelings of guilt, compunction, or self-insight; and 3) possess cognitive resources needed to develop and practice correction. Of note, whites who are more internally motivated to reduce their levels of race bias show less implicit prejudice, whereas those who are more externally motivated display more implicit prejudice. Furthermore, repeated exposure to an admired black person (e.g., Denzel Washington) and a disliked white person (e.g., Jeffrey Dahmer) decreased the magnitude of automatic preference for whites over blacks. And this reduced race preference effect was not fleeting; it endured for at least 24 hours.

Read Part II here.