Does it matter if people are aware of their implicit racial bias?

In this blog post, I discuss how people respond to information about their implicit racial bias—automatic attitudes and beliefs that favor one ethnic group over another. Although people can be defensive, emerging research suggests there are benefits to accepting implicit racial bias and being aware of this subtle prejudice.

In the U.S. today, social norms make prejudice against minority groups unacceptable (Crandall, Eshleman, & O’Brien, 2002), and most people are motivated to follow these norms either to fit in or because being fair and egalitarian are personally important values (Plant & Devine, 1998). Furthermore, given the emphasis placed on being egalitarian, most people would be upset to learn that they show a preference for one racial or ethnic group over another.

Yet, studies on implicit racial bias demonstrate that the majority of people hold this kind of subtle prejudice (Axt, Ebersol, Nosek, 2014), even if they are not always aware or willing to accept it. This means that while people may overtly claim to be unprejudiced, their automatic reactions to people from different groups may be biased. 

One of the most popular measures of implicit racial bias is the Implicit Associations Test (IAT; Greenwald, McGhee, & Shwartz, 1998) which uses reaction times to assess associations between two target categories (e.g., Black and White) and two evaluative concepts (e.g., good and bad). Although psychologists have used the IAT to study people’s social attitudes for almost 20 years, the test can actually measure automatic preferences for a variety of categories such as bugs and flowers or the popularity of U.S. Presidents. Importantly, some research has demonstrated that for White people merely taking the race IAT is threatening because it offers an opportunity to confirm a negative stereotype (that White people are racist) which contrasts with how most people wish to see themselves (Frantz, Cuddy, Burnett, Ray, & Hart, 2004). So, how do people respond when they have the opportunity to receive feedback from the test?

In one study, people who took the race IAT and were told that they likely would receive feedback suggesting that they have a pro-White bias responded by engaging in a behavior called information avoidance—they chose not to see their test results (Howell, et al., 2013). Indeed, comparing this group of people to those told to expect favorable IAT feedback (egalitarian test results) or those people given no information about the test suggests that their behavior was not a chance event; people chose to avoid their test results so they would not have to confirm that they have racial bias.

Other research demonstrates that performing poorly on the IAT causes people to feel guilty, which, in turn, causes people to generate excuses as a way of managing their guilt. Typically, people will blame their poor IAT performance on the difficulty of the test, their level of familiarity with the two groups, or cultural stereotypes (Monteith, Voils, Ashburn-Nardo, 2001). Ultimately, any “excuse” will help people alleviate their feelings of responsibility and thus, strengthen their sense of innocence. But by making an external attribution for their test results, do people miss a valuable opportunity to correct their biases?

Why does awareness of implicit racial bias matter? 

Why does it matter if people accept or reject information about their implicit racial bias? Well, in a world where most people try not to be prejudiced, subtle bias can perpetuate inequality between groups. And, as the old adage goes, “The first step in fixing a problem is admitting there is one.”

Encouragingly, some emerging research shows that despite being defensive about implicit bias in some circumstances, people are aware of it in others. Specifically, when people are asked to predict their results across several IAT tests, they show consistent insight into their implicit attitudes for a variety of social groups (Hahn, Judd, Hirsh, & Blair, 2013). Furthermore, while people generally show more bias on implicit tests than on explicit survey questions about prejudice, the difference between the measures decreases when people accept their implicit attitudes as something important about them and not just their knowledge of stereotypes in society (Cooley, Payne, Loersch, & Lei, 2015). Thus, increasing the correspondence between people’s implicit bias and their self-reported prejudice might make them more aware of their automatic attitudes and help them understand how bias can affect their thoughts and behavior.

Indeed, Perry and her colleagues (2015) recently showed that awareness of bias does affect thoughts and behaviors. In their study, people who accepted that they might have subtle bias toward Black people, were more likely than people who rejected that idea to accept feedback on the IAT showing that they favored Whites over Blacks. Importantly, the people who were aware of their bias were also more likely to later volunteer for a diversity initiative on campus and to recognize subtle bias as discrimination in other people’s behavior. Recognizing subtle prejudice as discrimination is especially important given the way institutional discrimination often occurs—subtlety. So, in a society where most people do not want to think they have any prejudice, it might help us all to be a little more accepting and aware of our own bias.

If you are interested in learning more about the IAT or taking a test, you can find both here:



Axt, J. R., Ebersole, C. R., & Nosek, B. A. (2014). The rules of implicit evaluation by race, religion, and age. Psychological Science, 25, 1804-1815. doi:10.1177/0956797614543801

Cooley, E., Payne, B. K., Loersch, C. & Lei, R. Who owns implicit attitudes? Testing a metacognitive perspective. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41, 103-115. doi: 10.1177/0146167214559712

Crandall, C. S., Eshleman, A., & O'Brien, L. (2002). Social norms and the expression and suppression of prejudice: The struggle for internalization. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 359-378. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.82.3.359

Frantz, C. M., Cuddy, A. J., Burnett, M., Ray, H., & Hart, A. (2004). A threat in the computer: The race implicit association test as a stereotype threat experience. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30, 1611-1624. doi:10.1177/0146167204266650

Greenwald, A. G., McGhee, D. E., & Schwartz, J. L. K. (1998). Measuring individual differences in implicit cognition: The implicit association test. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1464-1480. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.74.6.1464

Hahn, A., Judd, C. M., Hirsh, H. K., & Blair, I. V. (2014). Awareness of implicit attitudes. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143, 1369-1392. doi:10.1037/a0035028

Howell, J. L., Collison, B., Crysel, L., Garrido, C. O., Newell, S. M., Cottrell, C. A., Smith, C. T., & Shepperd, J. A. (2013). Managing the threat of implicit attitude feedback. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 4, 714-720. doi:10.1177/1948550613479803

Monteith, M. J., Voils, C. I., & Ashburn-Nardo, L. (2001). Taking a look underground: Detecting, interpreting, and reacting to implicit racial biases. Social Cognition, 19, 395-417. doi:10.1521/soco.19.4.395.20759

Plant, E., & Devine, P. G. (1998). Internal and external motivation to respond without prejudice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 811-832. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.75.3.811

Perry, S. P., Murphy, M. C., & Dovidio, J. F. Modern prejudice: Subtle, but unconscious? The role of bias awareness in Whites’ perceptions of personal and others’ biases. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (2015), doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2015.06.007