Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Can modern day gadgets help combat prejudice?

Prejudice...we've all experienced it at one point or another. Defined as a preconceived belief, opinion, or judgment toward a group or person because of race, social class, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc., it also means a priori beliefs that include any unreasonable attitude that is unusually resistant to rational influence.

It's been the cause of countless wars and an infinite amount of unnecessary suffering. It must be put to an end once and for all! But first we must look at the underlying mechanisms that continue propagating such maladaptive cognitions and behaviors. So how do today's researchers go about investigating prejudice anyway?

Cunningham, et. al (2004) used the Implicit Association Online Test (https://implicit.harvard.edu/) developed by Greenwald in 1998 to measures unconscious prejudice of certain groups. Subjects had to pair groups with "good" and "bad" labels and were given only a fraction of a second to respond; a mere gut reaction. From 1998 to now 2.5 million tests have been taken. Findings showed strongest prejudice against the elderly. There was less shame concerning bias against gays/lesbians and the obese.

Banaji, a colleague of Cunningham's, showed in 2003 that when white students consciously recognized black faces brain areas involved with controlled thinking became active. Rational thought was triggered. Subjects were given the opportunity to challenge their implicit prejudice in this gut reaction free condition. She states "the imprint of culture is what we see in the subliminal exposure".

As the original developer of the Implicit Association Test, Greenwald et. al (2003) decided to take a further look at the prejudice happening all around us. He asked whether police officers, looking out for criminal activity, would lead to them focus more on black faces than white faces. He used a pseudo virtual reality experiment where subjects were asked to either fire at or not fire at simulated criminals (with guns), police officers (with guns), or citizens (with harmless objects). Findings showed that this indeed proved to be the case.

Dotsch and Wigboldus (2007) investigated how prejudiced implicit associations affected physiological and behavioral responses. Subjects were immersed in a virtual environment where they encountered either a White or Moroccan avatar. Results showed that subjects maintained further distance and showed increase in skin conductance levels (fear response) when approaching Moroccan avatars as opposed to White avatars.

Harris and Fiske (2007) looked at social groups that elicit disgust (e.g. homeless people, drug dealers) and found that they were processed differently in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), a brain area crucial for social cognition. Lower activation of the mPFC could mean that these groups were being perceived as less than human.

Here's an fMRI of the subjects' brain activity (yellow circle=social emotion (in group), red circle=non-social emotion (out group)):

So if all these healthy people are responding in prejudice ways that seem almost automatic, could it mean that prejudice is innate, ingrained through years of evolutionary process? Tribal psychology suggests that it's a strategy that enhances individual survival. There's not enough time to form legitimate views about potential threat so an innate response would be to defend against the "other".

Olsson, in 2005 decided to further probe this question and specifically asked whether humans were genetically predisposed to be racists. She found that fear conditioning extend to social groups defined by race. Results indicated that individuals from a racial group other than one's own were more readily associated with an aversive stimulus than individuals of one's own race, among both white and black subjects.

So is it a matter of preparedness? Not likely according to Maia (2009). She re-interpreted Olsson's findings by first explaining that the timing and pattern of differentiation of human ‘‘races'' made it unlikely that humans could have evolved mechanisms specifically to learn to fear different races. Additionally, human populations differentiated into different races relatively recently in evolutionary history where different groups evolved different characteristics because they were relatively isolated from each other. So being genetically prepared to fear individuals from different races was unlikely to have provided any selective advantage. So in fact it’s really about familiarity and exposure not evolution. IT’S LEARNED!

If being prejudiced is a learned trait, then how do we unlearn it? Allport, in 1954 came up with this nifty theory termed the Contact Theory as a reaction to WWII. Basically he purported that given the right conditions if members of differing groups come in contact with one another, the interaction ultimately leads to more positive intergroup relations. The theory has been slightly modified over the years but here's an overall diagram of what the model looks like.

Crisp and Turner(2009) asked whether imagined interactions produce positive perceptions? They found that simply imagining a positive social interaction with an “outgroup” improved intergroup attitudes, greater projection of positive traits to outgroups, reduced anxiety, and reduced stereotype threat. Examples were changing of young people's attitudes toward older people, straight men's attitudes toward gay men, and Mexican people's attitudes toward Metizos in Mexico. They ruled out cognitive load, demand characteristics, stereotype priming, and positive affect as possible alternative explanations.

If the power of imagination is so effective could virtual reality take this concept of Contact Theory one step further? Groom, Bailenson, & Nass (2009) asked the very same question. They investigated how people’s implicit racial bias was affected by the race of their avatar in an immersive virtual environment.

The fascinating study consisted of 98 Undergraduate students shown either picture of a black or white person. They were asked to “imagine a day in the life of” the person they were shown and told they would be later interviewed as that person. They then proceeded to put on virtual gear and looked into a virtual mirror (i.e. embodiment of a black avatar, white avatar, or empty mirror control condition). Afterward, they went on a virtual job interview in which confederate interviewer was blind to subject’s virtual race. After completion, subjects filled out Implicit Association Test and measures of explicit racial bias.

The authors found that people’s implicit racial bias varied depending on the model race they embodied. The imagined condition showed no significant difference between white and black models. Surprisingly, subjects embodied by black avatars showed greater racial bias favoring whites compared to subjects embodied by white avatars. They suggested that people aware of stereotypes expressed implicit bias when stereotypes were activated (i.e. looking at the black avatar in the mirror). They concluded that results do not support the perspective taking theory and indicate that automatic racial bias is NOT reduced by embodying a disfavored racial group.

Another strike against using virtual reality to combat the evils of prejudice is the fact that a strange phenomena exists termed the Uncanny Valley. It's basically when robots and other facsimiles of humans look and act almost like actual humans where it causes a response of revulsions among human observers.

This construct originally developed by Masahiro in 1970, explains that the "valley" in question is a dip in a proposed graph of the positivity of human reaction as a function of a robot's life-likeness. Some funny clips to illustrate what I'm talking about.

Hilarious clip from 30 Rock further explaining the phenomena using Star Wars characters! http://kotaku.com/384789/the-uncanny-valley-explained-in-terms-of-porn-and-star-wars

Steckenfinger and Ghazanfar (2009) found that even monkeys preferred looking at real and unrealistic synthetic faces as opposed to real synthetic faces.

Some popular theories of why the Uncanny Valley exists include mate selection, automatic stimulus driven appraisals of uncanny stimuli elicit avoidance of unhealthy mate, pathogen avoidance, categorizing difficulties, and a violation of human norms.

If something as sophisticated as virtual reality won't work then what will? It seems like it's time to go back to the basics. Mirrors my friends!!! MIRRORS!

Wiekens and Stapel (2008) in an ingenious experiment investigated whether the presence of mirrors effected levels of prejudice. In the first of two experiments they had 164 students from Holland assigned to a mirror condition (filling out questionnaire in the presence of a mirror) or scanning for first person pronouns condition. Both conditions increased private self-awareness, but only the mirror condition additionally increased public self-awareness.

In the second experiment 127 students from Holland were asked to positively or negatively rate a Surinamese man (ethnic minority in Holland) after reading an ambiguous story of him. They were then assigned to either the first person pronoun, mirror, or control condition.

The authors found that students revealing prejudice in an earlier questionnaire were more likely to negatively rate the Surinamese man after completing the pronoun task compared to controls who didn’t perform the task. They also found that students who sat in the presence of a mirror were less likely to rate the Surinamese man in a negative way, compared with control students who didn't have a mirror near them.

Conclusion: MIRRORS WORK! (except for virtual reality mirrors apparently)

Maybe...just maybe with the placement of more mirrors within the public sphere, opportunities for nonjudgmental and open exchange between differing groups will begin to flourish.

In the words of the famous actor/comedian W. C. Fields, "I'm free of all prejudices. I hate everyone equally”.

This just in. HP computers are racist...

Crisp, R., & Turner, R. (2009). Can imagined interactions produce positive perceptions?: Reducing prejudice through simulated social contact. American Psychologist, 64 (4), 231-240 DOI: 10.1037/a0014718

Cunningham, W., Johnson, M., Raye, C., Chris Gatenby, J., Gore, J., & Banaji, M. (2004). Separable Neural Components in the Processing of Black and White Faces Psychological Science, 15 (12), 806-813 DOI: 10.1111/j.0956-7976.2004.00760.x

Greenwald, A. (2003). Targets of discrimination: Effects of race on responses to weapons holders Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 39 (4), 399-405 DOI: 10.1016/S0022-1031(03)00020-9

Groom, V., Bailenson, J.N., & Nass, C. (2009). The influence of racial embodiment on racial bias in immersive virtual environments. Social Influence, 4, 1-18.

Harris, L., & Fiske, S. (2006). Social groups that elicit disgust are differentially processed in mPFC Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2 (1), 45-51 DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsl037

Olsson, A. (2005). The Role of Social Groups in the Persistence of Learned Fear Science, 309 (5735), 785-787 DOI: 10.1126/science.1113551

Steckenfinger SA, & Ghazanfar AA (2009). Monkey visual behavior falls into the uncanny valley. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106 (43), 18362-6 PMID: 19822765

Tiago V. Maia (2009). Fear Conditioning and Social Groups: Statistics, Not Genetics Cognitive Science, 33, 1232-1251.

Wiekens, C., & Stapel, D. (2008). The Mirror and I: When private opinions are in conflict with public norms Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44 (4), 1160-1166 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2008.02.005
This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.org


  1. Prejudice or fear reactions are quite often justified. There are quite a few areas in America in which poverty and being black are highly associated. Simply put, poor people can be dangerous. We do not see car loads of rich, white college boys doing drive by shootings or car jackings. We do see black youth frequently involved in these blatant crimes. So why is it considered prejudicial when cops check out people who are more likely to commit crimes? That is what cops are hired to do in the first place. It is efficient use of police power and not racial hatred.

  2. Where do you think all the crime stems from? Prejudice is what kept white and black people segregated for years. Quality education and quality of life in general was reserved for the majority while the minority had to figure out a way to survive without the benefits of such environments. Things are slowly changing however, and I think for the better.