Posted on January 22, 2009

Researchers Try to Cure Racism

Brandon Keim, Wired Science, January 20, 2009

As the first African-American president in United States history takes office, researchers have shown that it may be possible to scientifically reduce racial bias.

After being trained to distinguish between similar black male faces, Caucasian test subjects showed greater racial tolerance on a test designed to to measure unconscious bias.

The results are still preliminary, have yet to be replicated, and the real-world effects of reducing bias in a controlled laboratory setting are not clear. But for all those caveats, the findings add to a growing body of research suggesting that science can battle racism.


Tarr’s findings overlap with other results suggesting that the key to reducing racial bias–at least in a short-term, laboratory setting–is exposure to people in personalized ways that challenge stereotypes. {snip}

But unlike carefully structured social mixing, with precisely controlled conditions of interdependence and equality, Tarr and others raise the possibility of a lab-based shortcut to bias reduction.

Underpinning this research is the Implicit Association Test, used by psychologists to measure deep-rooted, often unconscious biases. During the test, subjects are measured on the time it takes to associate faces with positive or negative words. If, for example, someone more quickly associates negative words with minority rather than white faces, they’re likely to have a bias–a bias that translates into a tendency to hire same-race workers, choose same-race partners, and find minority defendants guilty.


“It’s remarkable that our brain is so flexible that 10 hours of training will affect something that is the product of your whole life experience,” said Tarr, who hopes his work will lead to race training for people working in potentially race-sensitive situations, such as police officers, social workers and immigration officials.

In a study published Tuesday in Public Library of Science ONE, Tarr’s team put 20 Caucasian college students through ten hours of face-identification training, testing their ability to discern previously-seen from unknown faces. Students with the largest improvements in face memory also showed significant improvements on a variation of the Implicit Association Test.

According to Banaji, a brief talk about working for women suffices to reduce gender bias. City University of New York psychologist Curtis Hardin showed that having black experimenters administer a test produced lower bias scores among white subjects.


For at least the next four years, however, the United States will collectively undergo a real-world experiment in stereotype defiance.

“The first black president–that’s going to have a huge effect on things that come to mind,” said Ohio State University psychologist Richard Petty. “Instead of just negative associations, there will be all sorts of positive associations.”


[Editor’s Note: “Perceptual Other-Race Training Reduces Implicit Racial Bias,” by Sophie Lebrecht, Lara J. Pierce, Michael J. Tarr and James W. Tanaka can be read on-line here.]