Prejudice and discrimination can harm the health, well-being, and economic outcomes of members of disadvantaged groups.  Social psychologists distinguish between two types of prejudice—explicit and implicit (hidden) biases. 

Explicit biases are deliberate attitudes that people are willing to self-report whereas hidden biases often operate beneath the surface—shaping people's perceptions and influencing their actions in ways they may not realize or may not be able to prevent. For example, doctors may treat patients differently and managers may make crucial hiring decisions, unaware that their hidden biases shaped discriminatory outcomes.

Despite the social harm caused by hidden biases, and most people's stated desire to be unbiased, people sometimes react defensively when confronted with evidence of their hidden biases and resist doing anything to mitigate them. My colleagues and I wanted to understand this defensiveness and its consequences for changing hidden biases.

We conducted two studies involving over 4000 adults who voluntarily visited the Project Implicit website, responded to a question that measured their explicit racial bias, and completed the race Implicit Association Test (IAT), which measures hidden biases about White people relative to Black people.   Participants received feedback about their hidden racial bias (pro-White, no bias, or pro-Black) and completed a measure of defensiveness, which assessed dismissive attitudes towards the IAT itself and the feedback.  They also indicated their willingness to change their behavior to reduce their hidden racial bias.

Discomfort as a Motivation for Behavior Change

We were not surprised to discover that people who were more defensive about their hidden racial bias feedback were less willing to engage in bias-mitigating behaviors, regardless of the feedback they received.

More surprisingly, people who received feedback that they harbored a pro-White hidden bias and who believed that the feedback was inaccurate relative to their true attitude were more willing to engage in bias-mitigating behaviors. This reaction is a type of defensiveness that can motivate people to reduce their bias.

It might seem counterintuitive that people who believed their IAT feedback was inaccurate were more willing to engage bias-reducing behaviors.  Looking more closely at the reasons they thought the feedback was inaccurate, we found that these participants believed the pro-White feedback they received did not reflect how they truly are.  This in turn motivated them to reinforce their egalitarian attitude by being more willing to behave in bias-reducing ways.

This finding shows the importance of embracing discomfort, engaging in self-reflection, and being willing to confront hidden biases that contradict egalitarian values.

Conclusion

Defensiveness can be a major barrier to addressing hidden racial bias and engaging in behaviors that mitigate bias. Our studies were the first to show one type of defensiveness that can motivate people to reduce the impact of their hidden racial bias.

People do not like to discover that they harbor a hidden racial bias, but this information can motivate change. It is up to organizations and researchers who use measures to capture hidden bias to find ways to reduce defensiveness and motivate behavior change.  The tricky part is reducing defensiveness without letting people off the hook for changing their biased behaviors.


For Further Reading

Lofaro, N., Irving, L. H., & Ratliff, K. A. (2024). Defensiveness toward IAT feedback predicts willingness to engage in anti-bias behaviors. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, https://doi.org/10.1177/01461672231219948

Howell, J. L., Lofaro, N., & Ratliff, K. A. (2024). Responding to feedback about implicit bias. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 18(1), e12926. https://doi.org/10.1111/spc3.12926

Hawkins, C. B., Lofaro, N., Umansky, E., & Ratliff, K. A. (2023). Understanding implicit bias (UIB): Experimental evaluation of an online bias education program. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. https://doi.org/10.1037/xap0000469


Nicole Lofaro is a PhD candidate in her fifth year at the University of Florida and studies defensiveness towards implicit bias and ways in which people can effectively reduce their bias.