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The Cognitive Role in Implicit Prejudice

Consider the following scene:

A child sits in front of a television screen with an empty look in their eyes and a blank face.

What do you think the child is watching? What is the child feeling?

Perhaps, you think the child is viewing tacky ads, meaningless graphics, or a blank screen reflecting their current mental state. Why are these descriptions what comes to mind in response to the above-described scene, as it likely would with many readers?

Examining how biases and associations form and what role the brain plays in forming these associations can give us insight into this question. For example, while describing the child watching television in the above example, the sentence did not explicitly state that television is bad, nor was there an assertion to counter that. Yet the denotation of the words—“tacky,” “meaningless,” and “blank”—creates a negatively connotated association between television and negative effects. By repeatedly creating this association, even without reading a statement claiming one thing or another, the region of the brain dealing with long-term memory will simultaneously activate multiple thoughts, even when only one stimulant is given (e.g. the word “brainwashing” will prompt thoughts of televisions or vice versa).

There is extensive research evaluating psychological habits formed through explicit and implicit association. Scholars have also linked the different roles of various parts of the brain that deal with these psychological habits. Such psychological mechanisms can create biases against Arab Americans, Muslims, and other minorities in the media.

A study run by Jamie DeCoster and his colleagues found that subconscious, enduring implicit associations can lead a person to think of multiple things from one stimulant. Participants were given photographs of a person with a trait (e.g. Sam is not messy, Robin is helpful, etc.) and then asked to write down actions such persons might take and things about them (DeCoster et al. 2). Afterward, a distractor task was given and the groups were split into two.

The explicit group was explicitly asked what they thought about each person and asked to rank (from 1 to 7) to what degree the photographed person possessed a set of 3 traits, one being the trait originally described in the photograph. The results of the explicit group indicated that participants, as predicted, strongly associated the photographed person with a trait if the person was described to possess that trait, and strongly associated them with the bipolar opposite of a trait if the person was described not to possess that trait.

The implicit group was asked to memorize a person’s photograph and trait description and afterward, the implicit group would write down statements about the person. But in creating associations and memories of each photo and trait, the implicit group did not differentiate whether a group did or did not possess a trait. They were simply shown the photograph for several seconds and asked to write down what they think of to prevent conscious decisions from eliminating bias. If, for example, they were shown a picture of “Sam” who is “not messy,” the implicit group would associate “Sam” and “messy” without differentiation.

Because a collection of 16 different traits, both positive and negative, found similar results, it is unlikely that the results were influenced by people attempting to correct stereotyping or intentionally present positive or negative impressions. This reinforces the notion that two impressions of a person can co-exist in a person’s mind, one implicit and one corrected by explicit consciousness, even if the implicit and explicit impressions are contradictory (DeCoster et al. 17).

The parsimonious explanation is that “the explicit measure reflects a representation in the fast–binding system while the implicit measure reflects a representation in the slow–learning memory system” (DeCoster et al. 17). This conclusion supports the idea that a long-standing trend of negatively depicting targeted groups in media creates a slow-learned implicit association between the people and harmful stereotypes. The following articles will explore how such associations impact perception on mainly Arab Americans and Muslims, and relate it to other movements pertinent to today.


Works Cited

  1. DeCoster, Jamie, and Eliot R. Smith. “On the Inexplicability of the Implicit: Differences in the Information Provided by Implicit and Explicit Tests.” Social Cognition, vol. 24, no. 1, 2006, DOI:10.1521/soco.2006.24.1.5.

Last Fact Checked on May 28th, 2021.


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