Examples of implicit racial bias at work

An article in the NY Times contains important information on research into implicit bias. It also has a number of useful, though upsetting, examples. Here are some of them:

■ When doctors were shown patient histories and asked to make judgments about heart disease, they were much less likely to recommend cardiac catheterization (a helpful procedure) to black patients — even when their medical files were statistically identical to those of white patients.

■ When whites and blacks were sent to bargain for a used car, blacks were offered initial prices roughly $700 higher, and they received far smaller concessions.

■ Several studies found that sending emails with stereotypically black names in response to apartment-rental ads on Craigslist elicited fewer responses than sending ones with white names. A regularly repeated study by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development sent African-Americans and whites to look at apartments and found that African-Americans were shown fewer apartments to rent and houses for sale.

■ White state legislators were found to be less likely to respond to constituents with African-American names. This was true of legislators in both political parties.

■ Emails sent to faculty members at universities, asking to talk about research opportunities, were more likely to get a reply if a stereotypically white name was used.

■ Even eBay auctions were not immune. When iPods were auctioned on eBay, researchers randomly varied the skin color on the hand holding the iPod. A white hand holding the iPod received 21 percent more offers than a black hand.

■ The criminal justice system — the focus of current debates — is harder to examine this way. One study, though, found a clever method. The pools of people from which jurors are chosen are effectively random. Analyzing this natural experiment revealed that an all-white jury was 16 percentage points more likely to convict a black defendant than a white one, but when a jury had one black member, it convicted both at the same rate.

A number of these can also be used as examples of white privilege.

9 thoughts on “Examples of implicit racial bias at work

  1. I’ve been working on some methodological issues with the IAT, and I’m suspicious about the link between the reported research and the claim of “implicit” bias. But I know that many folks in the field aren’t, and so I’m curious whether anyone could give a better link between these results and the hypothesis that they’re driven by non-conscious forms of bias.

    To express my skepticism: none of the linked cited articles mention implicit bias in the abstracts. All of the results are entirely consistent with straightforward *explicit* bias. And the author’s claim that “Ugly pockets of conscious bigotry remain in this country, but most discrimination is more insidious.” seems.. well, optimistic at best, and straightforwardly false if it’s supposed to mean that large numbers of white Americans aren’t straightforwardly racist. So for example in 2012 surveys, 45% of white americans agreed with the claim that Blacks “don’t have the motivation or willpower to pull themselves out of poverty.” and nearly 30% said that it was ok to discriminate when selling a house (Source: http://tinyurl.com/ny436v2). From what I can find, those numbers are pretty consistent over the last few years, and they are hardly trivial numbers. Explicit racism alone seems to be enough to explain (say) the observed magnitude of discrimination in the linked housing report. And one would expect explicit surveys to skew low, since there are presumably still conscious but self-censored attitudes.

    I’ve got thoughts about this sort of reporting, but as I say — I’m curious about whether I’ve overlooked something (n.b. this is legitimate curiosity, not the annoying philosophical way of saying “I don’t think there is anything I’ve overlooked” — as far as the psych goes this is not entirely my area.). When you’ve got evidence of overt discrimination, and there are no direct measures of subjects’ attitudes, is there are good reason for appealing to implicit bias rather than good old-fashioned explicit bias?

  2. The NY Times account of the jury study (quoted here verbatim) is a bit misleading, if you compare to the original study. The actual result is that a jury drawn from an all-nonblack jury *pool* is 16 percentage points more likely to convict than one drawn from a jury *pool* with at least one black member. (I think the comparison in the report is all-nonblack vs 1+ black, not all-white vs 1+ black, again contra the NYT,) The point Is that US juries aren’t random at all: the US system (unlike the UK one, as a point of interest) gives a lot of power to prosecution and defence lawyers to influence the actual jury selected. (That’s what puzzled me on first reading, and led me to look up the primary source.)

    In fact, the actual result is more striking than what’s quoted: a jury pool with 1+ black members is compatible with an actual jury with no black members.

  3. CK, great comment. I think some of them are unlikely to be examples of explicit bias unless we’re dealing with the odd despicable heart surgeon. Ditto, one hopes, faculty and some others.

    Part of what the authors might say is that some of the situations are occasions for fast thinking, where implicit bias seems to be activated.

    Craig’s list and the car sales people seem to be especially apt for the idea that explicit racism is at work.

    David, thanks so much. I wonder if the misreporting could be due to a copy editor who just didn’t believe the striking fact. Or some poor RA.

  4. Thanks, David — I was confused by that as well, and the actual result is indeed pretty striking.

    Anne: yeah, I can see how that might go, but I guess I’m more pessimistic about explicit racism even amongst well-educated folks. Poking around I could only find one survey about doctor’s racial attitudes, but it was cardiac-related, and it showed a pretty consistent bias against blacks — not a *huge* bias, mind you, and the attitudes weren’t “Black patients aren’t worth as much as white patients” so much as more subtle “Black patients are less likely to comply with postoperative exercise regimes” and other things that might make cardiac catheterization seem less worth it (from van Ryn and Burke “The eff􏰀ect of patient race and socio-economic status on physicians’ perceptions of patients” ). Anecdotally, this is a big problem in pain management — black patients are much more likely to be seen as drug-seeking when they ask for painkillers even though (or again I’ve been told) white patients are actually slightly more likely to actually be drug-seeking.

    Anyway, that’s the sort of explicit bias I had in mind. Methodologically speaking, is it fair to say that the plausibility of implicit bias depends on your credences about explicit racism in the domain?

  5. Colin Klein:

    I am not sure if this is exactly what you’re after, but there are two kinds of things you might cite in support…

    1. There are philosophers who argue there is no distinction between implicit and explicit attitudes. I think Edouard Machery has a paper explicitly on this w/r/t implicit bias, but I can’t find a draft online. Much of Eric Mandelbaum’s work on belief can be read this way too.

    2. Then there are the empirical studies that show people are actually not bad predictors of their implicit attitudes as measured via IAT, which might be read as evidence that those attitudes aren’t so implicit after all. See Hahn, A., Judd, C.M., Hirsh, H.K., & Blair, I.V. (2013). Awareness of implicit attitudes. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. doi: 10.1037/a0035028 . (The wikipedia entry on this is also surprisingly useful: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Implicit_attitude#Awareness_of_implicit_attitudes ).

  6. This may not apply here, but I think that some activists downplay explicit bias and instead focus on implicit bias for pragmatic reasons . The idea might be that if you’re trying to convince people that there is a genuine problem that needs to be addressed, it’s far easier to get them to accept that there’s widespread implicit bias than that there is widespread explicit bias.

  7. Thanks for the Hahn et al, Shen-yi — that’s really interesting. I’d seen unpublished research suggesting the same thing, but this seems much cleaner.

    And thanks all for your help and comments — this has been really useful!

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