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Racial Biases Affect Who We Trust

April 27, 2011

(Ivanhoe Newswire) — Psychologists have found that people may make economic and trust decisions based on unconscious or unintentional racial biases, according to a new study. The study was conducted in the laboratory of New York University Professor Elizabeth Phelps.

“Decisions in the worlds of business, law, education, medicine, and even more ordinary daily interactions between individuals, all rely on trust,” the researchers were quoted as saying. “In an increasingly globalized economy, that trust must be forged between individuals who differ in background, shared experiences, and aspirations.”

“These results provide evidence that decisions we may believe to be consciously determined are, in fact, not entirely so, and suggest that this may have a very real cost for individuals and society,” the researchers continued. “Whom we trust is not only a reflection of who is trustworthy, but also a reflection of who we are.”

The field of psychology has generally concluded that there is a distinction between explicit and implicit mental processes, including attitudes, beliefs, and self-perceptions. Explicit mental processes involve intentional decisions or judgments while implicit mental processes occur relatively automatically and without awareness. In the PNAS study, the researchers focused on implicit social bias, a measure of how strongly one associates a concept — for instance, “pleasant” or “unpleasant” — with different social groups. Recent scholarship has shown implicit biases are pervasive and can predict social behaviors, including the decisions of highly-trained professionals such as doctors.

Employing a commonly used Implicit Association Test (IAT), researchers asked 50 racially diverse participants to rate the trustworthiness of individuals depicted in just under 300 photographs of Black, White, Asian, Hispanic, and mixed race men on a scale from one (“not-at-all trustworthy”) to nine (“extremely trustworthy”). The participants were instructed to report their initial “gut impressions.”

The researchers found that the participants’ implicit race attitudes, measured in a subsequent test, predicted disparities in the perceived trustworthiness of Black and White faces. Individuals whose tests demonstrated a stronger pro-White implicit bias were more likely to judge White faces as more trustworthy than Black faces, and vice versa, regardless of that individual’s own race or explicit beliefs.

According to the authors, the results suggest that implicit biases toward social groups may drive rapid evaluations of unfamiliar individuals in the absence of additional information, despite our conscious desires and intentions.

While the study’s subjects in both experiments included multiple racial groups, the race of the participants did not account for the findings.

“There is not a simple correspondence between individuals’ implicit racial attitudes and their own race,” the researchers explained. “Implicit attitudes are thought to result from many sources beyond one’s own race, including environmental exposure and personal interactions.”

SOURCE: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published online April 25, 2011




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