This is an archived article.

June 1, 1999

Showing pictures of admired blacks or elderly can lower levels of unconscious prejudice

Familiarity is said to breed contempt. But it also can foster tolerance.

Unconscious prejudice towards blacks and the elderly can be significantly decreased by exposing people to images of admired members of those groups, according to a new series of experiments conducted by University of Washington psychologists.

The results, showing drops of one-third to one-half in levels of unconscious prejudice that lasted for at least 24 hours, will be reported this week at a symposium on the psychology of prejudice at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Society in Denver. The session will start at 8:30 a.m. Friday in Adam’s Mark Hotel Denver. The research also focuses on how media portrayals of minorities and other stigmatized groups can perpetuate prejudice and stereotypes.

“I think these experiments provide a great deal of hope for changing unconscious prejudice that, until now, has been accepted as being fixed and immutable, said Nilanjana Dasgupta, a UW post-doctoral researcher funded by the National Science Foundation.

Dasgupta conducted this work in collaboration with Anthony Greenwald, a UW psychology professor and developer of the Implicit Association Test (IAT), a tool that measures the unconscious components of prejudice. In a series of tests conducted on the World Wide Web in the last eight months involving more than 50,000 Americans, Greenwald and Yale University colleague Mahzarin Banaji demonstrated that 80 percent to 85 percent of white Americans unconsciously prefer whites over blacks.

The Web version of the IAT also demonstrated high levels of unconscious gender stereotyping and prejudice against the elderly. These high levels of unconscious prejudice contrast sharply with conscious or explicit beliefs and statements by most Americans, who say they favor equal treatment on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender and age.

In the new experiments, Dasgupta and Greenwald measured unconscious attitudes with the IAT after exposing college students to pictures and descriptions of famous and infamous Americans. All participants in the tests were white or Asian-American.

In the first experiment, half the subjects were shown images and information about admired blacks, such as civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and ex-basketball star Michael Jordan, as well as images and information about such infamous whites as Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and serial killer Ted Bundy. The other subjects were shown pictures and data about such disliked blacks as former football star O.J. Simpson and boxer Mike Tyson and admired whites such as former President John Kennedy and actor Tom Hanks. Afterwards, all of the students were given the IAT to measure their unconscious attitudes, along with other tests that measured their conscious racial attitudes.

Students who had seen images of admired blacks expressed just about half the amount of unconscious prejudice against blacks as did those who had seen images of disliked blacks. However, these images did not affect conscious racial attitudes.

The second experiment largely duplicated the first, except the students came back 24 hours later to retake the tests measuring conscious and unconscious prejudice. The result basically matched the first experiment, showing that the effect of being exposed to admired blacks lasted for at least 24 hours.

The researchers demonstrated that the same general effect can be extended to unconscious ageism in the third experiment. In this trial, widely known elderly and young people replaced black and white individuals. Half the subjects were shown pictures and information about well-regarded elderly, such as former television anchorman Walter Cronkite and humanitarian Mother Teresa, and disliked younger people, including figure skater Tonya Harding and serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. The other subjects were exposed to disliked older people, such as hotel owner Leona Helmsley and Heaven’s Gate suicide cult leader Marshall Applewhite, and admired young people, including actor Leonardo DiCaprio and the late Princess Diana.

In this case, people who had been reminded of admired elderly persons had levels of unconscious ageism that were about one-third lower than those who had been reminded of admired younger persons.

“These results indicate that implicit attitudes and prejudices are more malleable than we had previously thought,” said Dasgupta. “They also suggest that images of blacks and the elders portrayed in the media do influence our unconscious attitudes. Think about all of the negative images we see in the media that are more vivid than the ones we used. So it is remarkable that when people briefly see positive images of a stigmatized group – showing people such as Colin Powell, Denzel Washington and Dr. King – that the images can have a powerful impact.”

“We don’t want to suggest that blacks, the elderly and other groups that are discriminated against should be exclusively portrayed as admirable and get into debate about the first amendment,” added Greenwald. “But an unanswered question is how can we hope to undercut existing implicit prejudices otherwise?”


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For more information, contact Dasgupta at (206) 543-5656 or nd@u.washington.edu. She can be reached in Denver June 3-6 at (303) 543-0457.
Greenwald can be reached at (206) 543-7227 or agg@u.washington.edu. He can be reached June 3-6 in Denver at Adam’s Mark Hotel, (303) 893-3333.

Additional information about the Implicit Association Test, can be found on the Web at: http://depts.washington.edu/iat/