Researchers believe there may be a simple way to address racial bias: help people improve their ability to distinguish between the faces of individuals of a different race.
Published in PsychDigest, March 2009 (vol. 2, no. 11)
Researchers at Brown University learned this through a new measurement system and protocol developed to train Caucasian subjects to recognize different African American faces. "The idea is this that this sort of perceptual training gives you a new tool to address the kinds of biases people show unconsciously and may not even be aware they have," said Michael J. Tarr, a Brown cognitive neuroscientist and a senior author of the paper. "There is a strong connection between the way we perceive and categorize the world and the way we end up making stereotypes and generalizations about social entities."
The hope is that the researchers' training program could someday be used to train anyone who comes into contact with other races-police officers, social workers or immigration officials.
Researchers used 20 Caucasian subjects for the overall study, which incorporated a measurement dubbed the Affective Lexical Priming Score (ALPS). The ALPS measure is similar to, and builds on, a test developed at Harvard University known as the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which helps to identify unconscious social biases.
The ALPS measurement involved first showing each subject a series of pictures of different races, such as African American and Caucasian faces. All the faces were shown in black and white, so subjects would focus on facial features rather than skin colour. On each ALPS trial, each test subject was shown a picture of a face, which then disappeared. The test subject then saw a word that could be real or nonsense-"tree" or "malk," for example-and had to decide whether the word was a real word or nonsense word. Real words could imply something positive or negative.
Prior to training, subjects more quickly responded if the word was negative and followed an African-American face. Subjects responded more slowly if the word was positive and followed an African-American face. During subsequent face-recognition training, half the subjects learned to tell apart individual African-American faces and half learned simply to tell whether the faces were African-American or not.
Those who received training to improve their ability to tell the difference between separate Africa-American faces showed the greatest reduction in their implicit racial bias as measured by the ALPS system. Their positive associations with African-American faces increased and they had fewer negative associations with African-American faces.
While the researchers are not claiming they can eliminate racial bias, they suggest that teaching people to tell the difference better between individual faces of a different race is at least one way to help reduce that bias. They believe that a system that teaches people to make those distinctions should be helpful in reducing generalizations based on social stereotypes. "If you give people the tools to start individuating, maybe they will make more individual (rather than stereotypical) attributions."
Brown University (2009, January 20). Faces and race. EurekAlert! Retrieved February 21, 2009, from http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2009-01/bu-far011509.php
Lebrecht, S., Pierce, L.J., Tarr, M.J., Tanaka, J.W. (2009, January 21). Perceptual other-race training reduces implicit racial bias. PLoS ONE 4(1). e4215. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0004215. Retrieved February 21, 2009, from the journal website at http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0004215. The full article is freely available online.