Since the 1990s, researchers have been trying to counteract unconscious bias - the idea that people who don’t consciously believe racist stereotypes are true can still be prejudiced by them without their being aware.
It has turned out that the treatment can be as much of a minefield as unconscious bias itself, with evidence that some workplace programmes that attempt to promote diversity actually make things worse.
Now the professor whose experiments revealed the psychological case for unconscious bias believes she’s found an effective treatment for it.
The answer is to treat it as a habit, says Trish Devine of the Prejudice Lab in Wisconsin.
Devine says the starting point for her work on unconscious bias was the disconnect she saw between people’s beliefs and their action.
Many who claimed - seemingly sincerely - that it was important to them to be non-prejudiced, still demonstrated bias in their spontaneous behaviour.
“Stereotypes popped to mind that were inconsistent with their attitudes and their values, they felt uncomfortable when interacting with people who were from different groups.”
She began a set of experiments using cognitive psychology and found that if you can bypass a person’s conscious awareness, their values often fall away.
This makes an interesting dilemma for the individual, she says.
“How would they cope with the inconsistency between their values and their spontaneous unintentional responses?”
Our vulnerability to unconscious bias is largely the result of day in, day out exposure to stereotypes which are embedded in children long before they have the cognitive capacity to question them (by the age of three or four).
Stereotypical judgements are activated spontaneously in our unconscious minds, says Devine.
This is especially the case for people who are either high in prejudice or not motivated to be non-prejudiced.
For them, stereotypic information can be so deeply embedded that it considerably overlaps with their beliefs, she says.
When Devine’s research first came out in the 1980s, many people were heartened to learn their unconscious biases didn’t make them bad people, she says.
“They said ‘You get me, you understand the challenge that I face in my daily life, that I don’t want to think in stereotypic ways. I believe women could be capable, but I think of them as emotional and nurturing and so on, and I don’t think of them as leaders… but I know they can be leaders...’”
Before unconscious bias can be treated it must first be uncovered with a method that effectively makes it impossible for someone to be strategic and thoughtful, Devine says.
She came up with a two-hour, semi-interactive presentation in which words with racial stereotypes (known as stereotype primers) are flashed into the peripheral vision of some participants. These messages connect with and activate stored memories, yet are outside of their conscious awareness, she says.
Participants are then given a scenario to read about a person doing something simple like returning an item to a shop and demanding their money back - an action that could be perceived either as hostile or just as someone standing up for themselves.
Both the people who claimed to be high and low in prejudice gave stereotype-based judgements of the subject of the scenario if they’d been presented with the stereotypical images earlier, says Devine.
“They saw the character [in the scenario] as highly hostile when the stereotype primers had been presented and they didn’t see him as hostile when the stereotype was not presented, so you just saw the effect of the priming - no effect of whether people were high or low on prejudice.”
Training in diversity is a delicate business and it is essential to avoid blame, Devine says.
When people sense that they’re being accused of being bad they tend to “retreat to their own” and become more uneasy with people unlike them.
She says the first step towards change on a larger scale is each of us waking up to our own unconscious bias.
“Awareness is key, motivation is key, and then you need to have strategies.”