Can Racial Bias Be Changed?

Racial bias is more common than people choose to believe. Even individuals who profess that they are not biased can find themselves exhibiting racially biased behaviors during interracial interactions. These situations can be stressful and cumbersome for people who approach them with fixed perspectives. Some experts believe that the way in which people look at their own racial bias can influence their ability to change it. This was the focus of a recent study led by Rebecca Neel of the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University. Neel and her colleagues conducted four separate experiments involving interracial and intraracial exchanges to determine how racial bias malleability, as perceived by the participants, would affect the outcome.

The study assessed white participants as they engaged with minority participants. Across all four studies, Neel found that the perception of bias flexibility had a direct effect on the shape of the exchange. For instance, white participants who thought that racial bias could be changed were interested in learning what caused the exchange to deteriorate and what they could do to achieve a different and more positive outcome. In contrast to these behaviors, the white participants who believed that racial bias was concrete in nature tended to use avoidant behaviors.  These participants also overcompensated for their bias in order to conceal their prejudice.

Neel noted that although one would think that perceiving bias as flexible could allow for more positive outcomes, that is not always the case. For instance, some minority participants did not like assuming the role of teacher for their partners. However, the white participants who overcompensated for their bias felt uncomfortable doing so and had increased levels of anxiety and less satisfaction with the interaction than those who were genuine in their exchanges. Neel believes that the results of her study could have significant clinical implications. The way in which a person thinks about prejudice may open the door for further exploration about racial bias and multicultural concerns in general. “Thus, psychologists will benefit from future research exploring how lay theories of racial bias influence the success of interventions designed to improve interracial interactions,” said Neel.

Neel, R., Shapiro, J. R. (2012). Is racial bias malleable? Whites’ lay theories of racial bias predict divergent strategies for interracial interactions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 103.1: 101-120.

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  • Jackson Brown

    August 2nd, 2012 at 4:34 PM

    Oh, wow! I really thought we were past all of this. I guess studies like this show just how far we have go. Although, on a personal level, I have to admit that when I encounter someone of a different race, I am often uncomfortable at first. But, it’s not because I feel I am biased. Instead, it’s because I am afraid the other person is biased against me because of my race. Am I being judged for my race? Am I saying something that is offensive to the other person without meaning to? After awhile, I am able to relax and connect on a human being to human being level. But, it does take a minute!

  • Emily K

    August 2nd, 2012 at 10:46 PM

    Racial bias can definitely be changed. The main reason for it to be present in the first place is getting all information abut members of a different race from one or limited sources. When I mix and make friends with people from different racial background, several of the myths that I might have come across will easily vanish, there by helping me reduce the racial bias that I carry!

  • Brooke Copeland

    August 3rd, 2012 at 5:06 AM

    While I don’t agree with the thought that we are beyond issues with race, I do totally understand what you are feelign when you meet someone of the opposite race. I have never been able to wrap my brain around how people can think they are better than someone else just because of the color of their skin or any other physically defining characteristics. I guess a lot of that goes back to how you were raised and the culture you were raised in. I was raised in the 70’s in the deep south when desegragation was really just beginning and I still think those who judge people based soley on their skin color are nuts.

  • alison

    August 3rd, 2012 at 7:23 PM

    Quote:Some experts believe that the way in which people look at their own racial bias can influence their ability to change it.

    a lot of people I know swear they have no racist thoughts but they will do the most racist of things in a given situation.these are hypocrites who deserve to be taught that racism is in them and not ‘around’ them that they often believe is the case!

  • Gary

    August 5th, 2012 at 4:42 AM

    I would like to say that yes, I think that the bias could change.

    And maybe it could if some kind of life changing experience occurred for someone. But I think that most of the time when we stay in the situations and the lifestyles that cretaed this deep bias in us to begin with then this is hard to break.

  • Monica

    August 6th, 2012 at 4:40 AM

    I would love to think that we are better than this, that we have the ability to rise above this.
    But if you have been innundated with these kinds of messages form the time that you were young, don’t you think that this kind of habit will be pretty hard to break?
    Even when you start to question those beliefs, and perhaps think that it’s not right to feel that way, there could still be those feelings in the back of your mind that are hard to get rid of.

  • Bart

    August 7th, 2012 at 5:47 PM

    Saying that this can’t be changed is such a cop out! Anyone can change anything about themselves if they want to bad enough. Maybe those not meeting with success are those who really don’t want to change at all. Either that or they are doing it for all the wrong reasons, and when you do anything for the wrong reason then that will never be met with much accomplishment.

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