A. Social Cognition Theory

Most research suggests that overt racism and conscious discrimination have declined steadily since the 1960s. What persists, however, are unconscious racial stereotypes that are less visible but no less pernicious. To better understand how unconscious bias works, a brief primer on social cognition theory is warranted.

In an effort to cope with what would otherwise be an overwhelming environment, humans unconsciously engage in a series of complex cognitive processes that enable us to parse and react quickly to incoming information. When we receive external stimuli, we selectively map the information into established categories. For example, when we encounter another human being, we might map our perceptions into categories such as age, gender, race, or sexual orientation. The categorization of these perceptions activates cognitive structures called schemas, and from the information or meanings embedded in our schemas, we draw inferences and make predictions about the person. These meanings may include both cognitive beliefs (stereotypes) and affective feelings (prejudices) about the groups with which we associate the person. According to psychologists, our respective categories and schemas influence every aspect of our cognition--what information we receive, how that information is classified, how we react to it, and how we remember it. More often than not, these cognitive processes are automatic; they happen almost instantaneously and whether we want them to or not.

Research shows that we develop racial meanings, beliefs, and feelings about members of other racial groups, from both direct and vicarious experiences. Our direct experiences with racial others are generally more influential, but our vicarious experiences may be more numerous. Vicarious experiences may include films, music, the internet, television shows, newspapers, or political speeches that in some way depict, describe, or report on members of different racial groups. Whites, who by and large live in homogenous communities, are especially likely to rely upon vicarious experiences when evaluating racial others.

In many cases, however, the material presented through our vicarious experiences is imbalanced in some way. This is particularly true when it comes to crime news reporting. Over the last two decades, multiple studies have demonstrated that people of color, and African-Americans in particular, are overrepresented as perpetrators and underrepresented as victims of crime in the media. A well-known study of local news programming in Los Angeles during the mid-1990s, for example, found that the media was 22% more likely to show African-Americans committing violent crime than nonviolent crime, while, in reality, they were equally likely to be arrested for both violent crime and nonviolent crime. White Americans, on the other hand, were 31% more likely to be depicted committing a nonviolent crime than a violent crime, when, in fact, they were just 7% more likely to be arrested for a nonviolent crime. Studies have also shown that the news media over-represents the incidence of interracial crime. Not surprisingly, when vicarious experiences with racial others are imbalanced, the racial meanings in our schemas become imbalanced.

Until recently, the challenge has been to gauge the content of an individual person's racial schemas. Because most of us are unwilling to admit to or are unaware that we possess racial stereotypes and prejudices, self-reported attitudes are not helpful. Instead, social psychologists have begun to develop indirect ways to measure racial meanings. The most recent phase of this research has sought to take advantage of the automaticity of bias through what are called reaction-time studies. Scientists trigger automatic cognitive processes through subliminal exposure to external stimuli, a technique known as priming, which activates a subject's racial schema without triggering conscious awareness of either the prime or its impact. Subjects are then asked to perform a task. When the prime and the task are consistent with the subject's schema, the subject's response time is faster; when they are inconsistent, it is slower. The time differentials observed are viewed as measurements of an individual's implicit bias.

A series of studies researchers at the University of Chicago conducted over the last decade are illustrative. In these experiments, researchers asked subjects to distinguish between computerized images of guns and hand tools. Just before each object appeared, a human face appeared on the screen. In some instances, the face was black; in others, it was white. There were two versions of the experiment. In one, participants were allowed to respond to the objects at their own pace. In the other, they had to respond to each object within half a second. The results were troubling. In the self-paced version, participants detected guns faster in the presence of a black face, and in the split-second version, participants falsely identified guns more often when the face was black than when it was white. Researchers concluded that participants' response time was faster because the black face prime condition and the gun were consistent with subjects' existing racial schemas and drew upon their stereotypes about blacks and gun possession. Perhaps more notable was the fact that, when forced to make a snap judgment, the subjects' stereotypic association between race and violence caused them to misperceive weapons where there were none.

Studies like this one have evolved into an entire industry devoted to measuring implicit bias and a prototype called the Implicit Association Test Not surprisingly, the IAT, along with a host of other tests, has repeatedly documented varying degrees of implicit bias against African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, and non-Americans. This implicit bias, in turn, has had demonstrable effects on performance, judgment, and treatment of others. Significantly, recent studies have documented implicit bias not just among members of the general public, but also among police officers, probation officers, prosecutors, capital defense attorneys, and federal magistrate judges who help to administer our justice system.