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"Breaking the Cycle: Implicit Bias, Racial Anxiety, and Stereotype Threat,"

by Rachel D. Godsil January/February 2015 issue of Poverty & Race

Our country is in the midst of a racial cataclysm. Deaths of black men and boys at the hands of police, combined with grand juries’ failure to indict, have spurred grief, rage and protest across the country. The reactions to the events are not uniform, however. A deep polarization along racial lines has emerged that contributes to the feeling among many people of color that black lives don’t matter.

Neither these tragedies nor the racial disconnect that followed occur in isolation. People of color experience obstacles rooted in racial or ethnic difference with alarming frequency. And yet most Americans espouse values of racial fairness. How can we make sense of these seeming contradictions? And how can we work to change the conditions that set the stage for daily challenges and tragic endings that are linked to race?

In November 2014, the Perception Institute, along with the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, and the Center for Police Equity, issued the first in a series of reports entitled, The Science of Equality: Addressing Implicit Bias, Racial Anxiety, and Stereotype Threat in Education and Health Care, co-authored by Rachel Godsil, Linda Tropp, Phillip Atiba Goff and john powell. The goal of this series of reports is to synthesize and make accessible the advances in neuroscience, social psychology and other “mind sciences” that have provided insight into otherwise confounding contradictions between our country’s stated commitment to fairness and the behaviors that lead both to tragic outcomes and day-to-day indignities linked to race.

Our report includes a lengthy discussion of social psychological research focusing on “implicit bias”— the automatic association of stereotypes or attitudes with particular social groups. We place particular emphasis on new research on reducing bias or, as Patricia Devine and colleagues describe, “Breaking the Prejudice Habit” (Devine 2014) and research identifying best practices to prevent implicit bias from affecting decision-making and behavior.

Understanding implicit bias can help explain why a black criminal defendant charged with the same crime as a white defendant may receive a more draconian sentence, or why a resume from someone named Emily will receive more callbacks than an otherwise identical resume from someone named Lakeisha. This work confirms that people of color whose experiences of the world make abundantly clear that “race matters” are not simply oversensitive, while also explaining how whites who consider themselves non-racist may be sincere, even if their behavior sometimes suggests otherwise.

This is not meant to suggest that racialized outcomes are only a result of individual actions; cumulative racial advantages for whites as a group have been embedded into society’s structures and institutions. However, as john powell and I argued in these pages in 2011 ("Implicit Bias Insights as Preconditions to Structural Change," P&R, Sept./Oct. 2011), there are two key reasons why structural racism cannot be successfully challenged without an understanding of how race operates psychologically. First, public policy choices are often affected by implicit bias or other racialized phenomena that operate implicitly. As a result, the changes in policy necessary to address institutional structures are dependent upon successfully addressing implicit biases that can affect political choices. Second, institutional operations invariably involve human behavior and interaction: Any policies to address racial inequities in schools, workplaces, police departments, courthouses, government offices and the like will only be successful if the people implementing the policy changes comply with them (Crosby & Monin, 2007).

Although implicit phenomena have the potential to impede successful institutional change, implicit racial bias is not the only psychological phenomenon that blocks society from achieving racial equality. We risk being myopic if we focus only on people’s cognitive processing, and we also risk unintended consequences if we focus our interventions only on addressing implicit bias. Our experiences, motivations and emotions are also integral to how we navigate racial interactions. These can translate into racial anxiety and stereotype threat which, independent of bias, can create obstacles for institutions and individuals seeking to adhere to antiracist practices. Indeed, research suggests that some forms of anti-bias education may have detrimental effects, if they increase bias awareness without also providing skills for managing anxiety.

Racial anxiety refers to discomfort about the experience and potential consequences of inter-racial interactions. It is important to distinguish this definition of racial anxiety from what social scientists refer to as “racial threat,” which includes the anger, frustration, uncertainty, feelings of deprivation and other emotions associated with concern over loss of resources or dominance. People of color may experience racial anxiety that they will be the target of discrimination and hostile treatment. White people tend to experience anxiety that they will be assumed to be racist and will be met with distrust or hostility. Whites experiencing racial anxiety can seem awkward and maintain less eye contact with people of color, and ultimately these interactions tend to be shorter than those without anxiety. If two people are both anxious that an interaction will be negative, it often is. So racial anxiety can result in a negative feedback loop in which both parties’ fears seem to be confirmed by the behavior of the other.

Stereotype threat refers to the pressure people feel when they fear that their performance may confirm a negative stereotype about their group (Steele, 2010). This pressure is experienced as a distraction that interferes with intellectual functioning. Although stereotype threat can affect anyone, it has been most discussed in the context of academic achievement among students of color, and among girls in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. Less commonly explored is the idea that whites can suffer stereotype threat when concerned that they may be perceived as racist. In the former context, the threat prevents students from performing as well as they ought, and so they themselves suffer the consequences of this phenomenon. Stereotype threat among whites, by contrast, often causes behavior that harms others—usually the very people they are worried about. Concern about being perceived as racist explains, for example, why some white teachers, professors and supervisors give less critical feedback to black students and employees than to white ones (Harber et al., 2012) and why white peer advisors may fail to warn a black student but will warn a white or Asian student that a certain course load is unmanageable (Crosby & Monin, 2007).

In other words, cognitive depletion or interference caused by stereotype threat can affect how one’s own capacity, such as the ability to achieve academically, will be judged; this causes first-party harm to the individual whose performance suffers. However, as is explored in more detail below, stereotype threat about how one’s character will be judged (i.e., being labeled a racist) can cause third-party harms when suffered by an individual in a position of power.

Implicit bias, racial anxiety and stereotype threat have effects in virtually every important area of our lives. In the first report, we illustrate the inter-related implications of the three phenomena in the domains of education and healthcare. Education and healthcare are of critical importance for obvious reasons, and an abundance of research has highlighted the role race plays in unequal outcomes in both domains.

The report also emphasizes the interventions that are emerging in the research that institutions can begin to use to prevent continuing racialized obstacles. Ideally, this work will happen at the structural and institutional level—but many of us don’t want to wait, and the social science research shows that we are not wholly without agency or tools. The interventions described below can, even in absence of wide-scale institutional change, help individual teachers or medical providers begin at least to ameliorate implicit bias, racial anxiety and stereotype threat.

“Debiasing” and Preventing Effects of Implicit Bias

While the research on debiasing is fairly new, recent studies by Patricia Devine and colleagues have found success in reducing implicit racial bias, increasing concern about discrimination and awareness of personal bias by combining multiple interventions to “break the prejudice habit.” The strategies quoted below (thoughtfully utilizing findings from research by Nilanjana Dasgupta and others) included:
  • Stereotype replacement: Recognizing that a response is based on stereotypes, labeling the response as stereotypical and reflecting on why the response occurred creates a process to consider how the biased response could be avoided in the future and replaces it with an unbiased response.

  • Counter-stereotypic imaging: Imagining counter-stereotypic others in detail makes positive exemplars salient and accessible when challenging a stereotype's validity.

  • Individuation: Obtaining specific information about group members prevents stereotypic inferences.

  • Perspective-taking: Imagining oneself to be a member of a stereotyped group increases psychological closeness to the stereotyped group, which ameliorates automatic group-based evaluations.

  • Increasing opportunities for contact: Increased contact between groups can ameliorate implicit bias through a wide variety of mechanisms, including altering their images of the group or by directly improving evaluations of the group.
The data showing reduced bias from Devine and colleagues “provide the first evidence that a controlled, randomized intervention can produce enduring reductions in implicit bias” (Devine et al. 2012). The findings have been replicated by Devine and colleagues, and further studies will be in print in 2015.

Preventing Implicit Bias from Affecting Behavior

To the extent that debiasing is an uphill challenge in light of the tenacity of negative stereotypes and attitudes about race, institutions can also establish practices to prevent these biases from seeping into decision-making. Jerry Kang and a group of researchers (Kang et al. 2012) developed the following list of interventions that have been found to be constructive:
Doubt Objectivity: Presuming oneself to be objective actually tends to increase the role of implicit bias; teaching people about non-conscious thought processes will lead people to be skeptical of their own objectivity and better able to guard against biased evaluations.

Increase Motivation to be Fair: Internal motivations to be fair rather than fear of external judgments tend to decrease biased actions.

Improve Conditions of Decision-making: Implicit biases are a function of automaticity (Daniel Kahneman’s “thinking fast”—Kahneman, 2013). Thinking slow by engaging in mindful, deliberate processing and not in the throes of emotions prevents our implicit biases from kicking in and determining our behaviors.

Count: Implicitly biased behavior is best detected by using data to determine whether patterns of behavior are leading to racially disparate outcomes. Once one is aware that decisions or behavior are having disparate outcomes, it is then possible to consider whether the outcomes are linked to bias.

Interventions to Reduce Racial Anxiety

The mechanisms to reduce racial anxiety are related to the reduction of implicit bias—but are not identical. In our view, combining interventions that target both implicit bias and racial anxiety will be vastly more successful than either in isolation.

Direct Inter-group Contact: Direct interaction between members of different racial and ethnic groups can alleviate inter-group anxiety, reduce bias, and promote more positive inter-group attitudes and expectations for future contact.

Indirect Forms of Inter-group Contact: When people observe positive interactions between members of their own group and another group (vicarious contact) or become aware that members of their group have friends in another group (extended contact), they report lower bias and anxiety, and more positive inter-group attitudes.

Stereotype Threat Interventions

Most of these interventions were developed in the context of the threat experienced by people of color and women linked to stereotypes of academic capacity and performance, but may also be translatable to whites (Erman & Walton, in press) who fear confirming the stereotype that they are racist.

Social Belonging Intervention: Providing students with survey results showing that upper-year students of all races felt out of place when they began but that the feeling abated over time has the effect of protecting students of color from assuming that they do not belong on campus due to their race and helped them develop resilience in the face of adversity.

Wise Criticism: Giving feedback that communicates both high expectations and a confidence that an individual can meet those expectations minimizes uncertainty about whether criticism is a result of racial bias or favor (attributional ambiguity). If the feedback is merely critical, it may be the product of bias; if feedback is merely positive, it may be the product of racial condescension.

Behavioral Scripts: Setting set forth clear norms of behavior and terms of discussion can reduce racial anxiety and prevent stereotype threat from being triggered.

Growth Mindset: Teaching people that abilities, including the ability to be racially sensitive, are learnable/incremental rather than fixed has been useful in the stereotype threat context because it can prevent any particular performance from serving as “stereotype confirming evidence.”

Value-Affirmation: Encouraging students to recall their values and reasons for engaging in a task helps students maintain or increase their resilience in the face of threat.

Remove Triggers of Stereotype Threat on Standardized Tests: Removing questions about race or gender before a test, and moving them to after a test, has been shown to decrease threat and increase test scores for members of stereotyped groups.

Interventions in Context

The fundamental premise of this report is that institutions seeking to alter racially disparate outcomes must be aware of the array of psychological phenomena that may be contributing to those outcomes. We seek to contribute to that work by summarizing important research on implicit bias that employs strategies of debiasing and preventing bias from affecting behavior. We also seek to encourage institutions to look beyond implicit bias alone, and recognize that racial anxiety and stereotype threat are also often obstacles to racially equal outcomes. We recommend that institutions work with social scientists to evaluate and determine where in the institution’s operations race may be coming into play.

The empirically documented effects of implicit bias and race as an emotional trigger allow us to talk about race without accusing people of “being racist,” when they genuinely believe they are egalitarian. The social science described in this report helps people understand why inter-racial dynamics can be so complicated and challenging for people despite their best intentions. The interventions suggested by the research can be of value to institutions and individuals seeking to align their behavior with their ideals. Yet for lasting change to occur, the broader culture and ultimately our opportunity structures also need to change for our society to meet its aspirations of fairness and equal opportunity regardless of race and ethnicity.

Works Cited

Crosby, J. R. & Monin, B. (2007). Failure to warn: How student race affects warnings of potential academic difficulty. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43, 663-670.

Dasgupta, Nilanjana, 2013 “Implicit Attitudes and Beliefs Adapt to Situations: A Decade of Research on the Malleability of Implicit Prejudice, Stereotypes, and the Self-Concept,” in P.G. Devine & E.A. Plant (eds.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 47, pp.233-79).

Devine, P. G., Forscher, P. S., Austin, A. J., & Cox, W. T. L. (2012). Long-term reduction in implicit race bias: A prejudice habit-breaking intervention. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 1267–1278

Devine, Patricia, et al. Breaking the Prejudice Habit (Guilford Publications, 2014)

Erman, S. & Walton, G. M. (in press). Stereotype threat and anti-discrimination law: Affirmative steps to promote meritocracy and racial equality. Southern California Law Review.

Harber, K. D., Gorman, J. L., Gengaro, F. P., Butisingh, S., William, T., & Ouellette, R. (2012). Students’ race and teachers’ social support affect the positive feedback bias in public schools. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(4), 1149-1161.

Kahneman, Daniel, Thinking Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013)

Kang, J., Bennett, M., Carbado, D., Casey, P., Dasgupta, N., Faigman, D., Godsil, R. D., Greenwald, A. G., Levinson, J. D. & Mnookin, J. (2012). Implicit bias in the courtroom. UCLA Law Review, 59(5), 1124-1186.

Steele, C. M. (2010). Whistling Vivaldi: And other clues to how stereotypes affect us. New York, NY: Norton.

Rachel D. Godsil is the Eleanor Bontecou Professor of Law at Seton Hall Law School and Director of Research for the Perception Institute, a national consortium of social scientists, legal academics, lawyers and social justice advocates focusing on the implications of the mind sciences for policy, culture and institutions. She also chairs the New York City Rent Guidelines Board.This article is a précis of a longer Perception Inst./Haas Inst. for a Fair & Inclusive Society/Ctr. for Police Equity report by Rachel Godsil, Linda Tropp, Phillip Atiba Goff & john powell, The Science of Equality: Addressing Implicit Bias, Racial Anxiety, and Stereotype Threat in Education and Health Care. The Perception Inst.,

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