Opportunity & Access

Unconscious Racial Stereotypes Can Be Reversible

Negative racial stereotypes affect even the most well-intentioned people, but research shows we can also be influenced for the better.

January 01, 2008

| by Marguerite Rigoglioso



“When we like or identify with people, we’re more likely to emulate their attitudes and behaviors,” explains Brian Lowery. | Photo by Elena Zhukova

Negative stereotypes about various racial groups bombard us every day in the mass media and deposit their residue deep into our minds, often without our realizing it, says Brian Lowery. Even among the most well-intentioned and consciously egalitarian people, says the associate professor of organizational behavior, non-conscious associations about ethnic groups still have a pernicious effect on behavior and attitudes.

The good news, he says, is that we can also be influenced for the better, particularly by social relationships with people who strongly value egalitarian ideals.

Lowery’s work moves the dialogue on racism beyond simple dichotomies that divide people into categories of “good” and “bad” according to their views on people of a different race or ethnicity. “The situation is much more complex,” he says. Even people who consciously disavow prejudice can fall into racist traps.

In one study, for example, Lowery demonstrated how racial stereotypes subtly operate in the penal system. Los Angeles police and probation officers were asked to make judgments about a hypothetical adolescent (whose race was not identified) who had allegedly either shoplifted or assaulted a peer. Certain officers were first subliminally exposed towards commonly associated with African Americans (such as ghetto, homeboy, dreadlocks, etc.) on a rapidly flashing computer screen so that they took in the information subconsciously. In contrast to subjects who did not receive this “priming,” officers with the subconscious messaging attributed more negative traits and greater culpability to the hypothetical offenders, and they endorsed harsher punishment — all typical responses to Black as opposed to white offenders.

In other words, by simply unconsciously thinking about Black people, officers suddenly began seeing a neutral situation in racially stereotypical terms — without even knowing it. The subliminal priming was all it took to activate the entire program of material these officers held about African Americans.


Even people who consciously disavow prejudice can fall into racist traps.
Brian Lowery

The phenomenon held sway even for officers who reported — and truly believed — they were tolerant and non-biased toward non-whites. “What’s particularly interesting is that many of the officers were African Americans themselves,” Lowery notes. “This shows the degree to which even African Americans can be affected by the negative associations in the environment.”

When participants who had received the subliminal priming were later debriefed and told about the results, Lowery reports, they were extremely uncomfortable. “People are very reluctant to believe their scores reflect anything about their attitudes, and they instead try to invalidate the measures,” he says.

In other research, Lowery examined just how readily people associate particular social groups with certain kinds of feelings. In a subliminal word-association exercise, Black people’s faces were more quickly associated with negative words, while white faces were linked with positive words.

Lowery found, however, that such associations would change when subjects were exposed to someone who displayed egalitarian attitudes (as evidenced by wearing a T-shirt with an anti-racism message). The presence of an egalitarian African American person or white person who was friendly and appealing was enough to shift participants’ unconscious racial associations to become less negative about Black people. Interestingly, the presence of an unfriendly though egalitarian researcher did not result in such a shift. “When we like or identify with people, we’re more likely to emulate their attitudes and behaviors,” Lowery explains. His research also confirms that children who identify strongly with parental figures tend pick up their parents’ racial views.

What’s hopeful about these latter results, Lowery says, is that a change in viewpoint toward another ethnic group can come from within a social group through positive and appealing role models who exhibit justice-minded attitudes — an important factor given that widespread segregation often makes it difficult for various groups to interact. By exploring such possibilities, Lowery’s work is helping to expand there search on ethnic stereotyping in new directions. In addition, by working with participants in live settings such as the juvenile justice system — and not relying exclusively on student subjects as researchers in the laboratory typically do — he is also helping to demonstrate how racism operates in populations where such issues can literally be a matter of life and death.

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