Emotional insight: Discovering the nature of prejudice development and reduction through emotional mechanisms

2016 Sosland Prize in Expository Writing

Lily Lu
Issues related to race and prejudice have been prevalent and deeply rooted in the history of the United States, especially between black and white populations. Even today, events such as the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, a black man, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri (Bowman, 2015), and the racially charged events occurring at universities such as the University of Missouri (Rosenberg, 2015) have made it more and more obvious that prejudice and tense race relations still persist as a modern problem. As of 2014, at least 38% of the population in the United States is comprised of non-white minorities (U.S. Census Bureau, 2014), and population projections by the U.S. Census (2014) predict that this diversity will only grow in the near future. As the nation’s population becomes more diverse, researchers have increasingly become focused on the science behind prejudice and what can be done to reduce prejudices in order to allow for the success of intergroup relations in the future. Such research has focused on two forms of prejudice: explicit prejudices, which reflect the conscious beliefs and self-reported attitudes that one has toward certain racial groups, and implicit prejudices, which involve more automatic and unconscious beliefs and attitudes (Baron and Banaji, 2006; Bigler and Liben, 2007). Studies have found that implicit forms of prejudice are much more pervasive than explicit forms of prejudice (Baron and Banaji, 2006; Kubota, Banaji, and Phelps, 2012), which suggests that there is some aspect of implicit prejudices that makes them more resistant to change. This implied immutability of implicit prejudices raises issues for the effectiveness of prejudice reduction techniques, and so an understanding of the mechanisms behind the pervasiveness of implicit prejudices would act as the next step in furthering advances in prejudice reduction methodology.
So far, the common methods of reducing prejudice largely rely on conscious and self-aware relearning of attitudes toward certain groups, especially since a number of studies have concluded that implicit biases are inescapable and impossible to eliminate, and thus impossible to change (Bargh, 1999; Devine, 1989 as cited in Dasgupta and Greenwald, 2001). Yet research has found that, while explicit prejudices change more easily in response to rational argumentation and conscious relearning, implicit prejudices respond more to persuasion that appeals to the emotions (Edwards, 1990; Edwards & von Hippei, 1995; Fabrigar & Petty, 1999 as cited in Dasgupta and Greenwald, 2001). Despite the supposed importance of understanding emotional mechanisms behind implicit prejudices, the role that emotions play in the development and persistence of prejudice is relatively less explored than that of social cognition. Surveying the existing literature on the topics of prejudice and emotions reveals the significant ways that these two fields intertwine and provides insights into the difficulties in changing the prejudices of individuals that cannot be explained by cognitive properties alone. By analyzing implicit prejudices from an emotion-based perspective, it seems that implicit prejudices are so resistant to change because the development of such prejudices is deeply rooted in an emotional learning process that is perpetuated by a subtly prejudiced society and is largely out of conscious control.


Research on prejudice reduction has changed significantly in the last few decades, most notably due to the creation of methods to measure the implicit biases that individuals are less aware of, rather than just focusing on explicit self-reports of biases. In earlier research, studies that measured prejudice through more explicit methods such as interviews, surveys, and other forms of self-reporting demonstrated a distinct drop in the negative attitudes that white Americans have toward black Americans (McConahay, Hardee, and Batts, 1981 as cited in Kubota et al., 2012). However, these findings were limited to measures of explicit prejudices, and later studies on implicit biases found decidedly different results. The study of implicit prejudices became more frequent due to the development of the implicit association test (IAT), which was able to provide a reliable way to assess unconscious biases and preferences that one may not consciously be aware of (Greenwald and Banaji, 1995). Interestingly, studies that employed the use of the IAT to measure prejudices found that even though white Americans explicitly reported no biases for or against black or white stereotypes, they demonstrated a distinct unconscious preference for positive stereotypes of white Americans over black Americans (Ames and Banaji, 2002 as cited by Kubota et al., 2012). Furthermore, even though explicit methods of reducing prejudice through advocating for egalitarian values has led to a consistent decrease of explicit racial stereotypes as children grow older, their implicit prejudices do not decrease from child to adult (Baron and Banaji, 2006).

The fact that implicit prejudices have not decreased in response to prejudice reduction techniques in the same way explicit prejudices have is especially an issue in light of the increasing amount of evidence showing that implicit measures of prejudice can predict the biased or prejudiced behavior of an individual. A review by Kubota et al. (2012) identified a few significant examples of the association between levels of implicit prejudice and an individual’s behavior. For example, increased levels of implicit biases predict a number of discriminatory behaviors in individuals, such as a less favorable judgment of another’s work. Furthermore, they noted that these unconscious and unintended biases have also been shown to influence important decisions such as whom individuals choose to trust financially, whom they choose to employ, whom they choose to support in legal matters, and even whom to treat for certain diseases in the medical field. In all previous studies, the level of explicit biases in the individuals who expressed such discriminatory behaviors was low or nonexistent. Based on these findings, even if individuals do not consciously possess prejudiced beliefs and are unaware of their implicit prejudices, their actions and decisions are still affected by the existence of such implicit biases.

Such research shows that merely reducing explicit prejudices is not enough to reduce discriminatory behavior in the long run, yet efforts to reduce implicit prejudices specifically in individuals have found that these kinds of prejudices are quite resistant to change. Efforts to indirectly change implicit attitudes to be more positive or neutral toward race stimuli have been successful, but only for a short period after the study (Dasgupta and Greenwald, 2001; Kubota et al., 2012). Furthermore, a study on prejudice in children has found that both explicit and implicit prejudices are present in children at the early age of four (Bigler and Liben, 2007). As children grow older, explicit biases decrease and vanish entirely in adults, while implicit biases do not change in magnitude at all (Baron and Banaji, 2006). Baron and Banaji (2006) infer that the decrease in explicitly prejudiced attitudes may be due to a child’s values becoming more egalitarian as they develop, but such development does not affect their implicit attitudes, which suggests that implicit biases are more difficult to change and reduce than explicit biases throughout one’s life. In order to explain this, it is valuable to determine how and why implicit prejudices develop and exhibit this resistance to change that is not present in explicit prejudices.


Through decades of prejudice research, psychologists and researchers such as Gordon Allport have proposed multiple explanations for the development of prejudice in children, such as explicit learning from parent figures, conformity to a kinship group, the influences of personality and identity, and so on (Allport, 1954 as cited in Aboud, 2005). However, the majority of these models arise from cognitive origins. While there is substantial merit in analyzing the cognitive aspects of prejudice, a less common approach involves exploring prejudice from the context of emotions. Kubota et al. (2012) compiled a summary of modern findings on the neuroscience of prejudice, and found that the brain area most often reported to be active in studies of black-white race attitudes and decision-making is the amygdala, which is known for its role in governing the emotion of fear and fear conditioning, or fear learning (LeDoux, 2002). Additionally, Kubota et al. (2012) reported that the activation of the amygdala consistently correlates with implicit biases as measured on the IAT. The fact that these findings demonstrate a relationship between implicit prejudices and the amygdala suggests that there is a substantial emotional component of prejudice. Race relations themselves are highly saturated with negative emotions, such as fear, anger, and lack of trust (Kubota et al., 2012), so the fact that the amygdala is heavily involved in the neurology of prejudice is not surprising. As a side note, although emotions other than fear are involved in prejudice, such as anger, frustration, irritation, and so on (Smith and Mackie, 2005), the emotional and neural mechanisms of fear in the amygdala are more frequently discussed in the literature, and so this analysis will focus on that aspect of prejudice.

Despite research indicating that emotions are a critical part of experiencing prejudice, comparatively less focus has been placed on the emotional mechanisms behind prejudice, largely due to some misconceptions about emotion that were once held. Emotions were originally considered to be irrational and working against one’s best interests (Smith and Mackie, 2005), and also difficult to study because of their subjectivity (LeDoux, 2000). In the mid-20th century, most of the research on emotions in the context of prejudice was based on the notion that the irrationality of emotions helped to explain what was thought to be the “disturbed thinking and despicable behavior” characteristic of prejudiced individuals, such as a Nazi or a Ku Klux Klan member (Smith and Mackie, 2005, p. 364). As focus on prejudice shifted from the most extreme cases to the average person, emotions were largely pushed to the side since it seemed as if they were no longer entirely relevant (Smith and Mackie, 2005).

However, more recent studies have proven emotions to be much more systematic and rationally based than originally thought, as well as a key component of proper cognitive and social functioning in individuals. Emotions are now more appropriately defined as the unconscious process by which the brain determines the value of a stimulus and initiates an appropriate bodily response (LeDoux, 2002). Rather than just being an irrational process, emotions are actually essential in the unconscious evaluation of events and stimuli, which is critical in contributing to the health and survival of an individual (LeDoux 2002). According to Damasio (2010), emotions result from a history of evolution that has utilized such a process to attend to or fulfill one’s internal needs, life-regulation mechanisms, and motivations. Furthermore, emotions have been found to be essential in processes that were originally seen as purely cognitive, such as decision making, social functioning, and learning (Immordino-Yang and Damasio, 2007). Far from being an entirely irrational process, emotions actually serve as key processes that inform an individual’s cognitive processes at an unconscious level, which indicate how essential it is to consider emotions in analyzing implicit prejudices. The fact that the amygdala is involved in experiencing prejudice further indicates that some emotion-based approach to implicit prejudices is necessary to understand the processes behind such biases.

While the rational and purposeful basis of emotions makes sense when one considers the role that some emotions play in life, one may wonder if the fear response to prejudice demonstrates this at all, since prejudiced responses are typically seen as undesirable. On the one hand, a number of emotions serve useful and welcome purposes. The presence of some life-threatening stimulus, such as a hostile animal, may trigger the emotion of fear that leads to bodily responses appropriate for the situation at hand, such as a fight-or-flight response, increased heart rate, and a rush of adrenaline (LeDoux, 2002). Emotions labeled as social emotions, such as compassion, guilt, and admiration, facilitate interactions in social systems and allow for the formation of ethical systems and moral principles that govern a stable society (Damasio, 2010). Yet on the other hand, a fear response to racial stimuli does not seem to serve the same useful purposes as the other examples of emotions, which may make this process seem more irrational than what was claimed before.

This discrepancy is explained by Damasio (2010), who states that even though all emotions arise to serve some purpose, those purposes may not necessarily be adaptive or desirable, as in the case of prejudice. He explains that sometimes, an emotional response, such as fear, may only be a false alarm triggered by a stimulus that does not actually require a fear response, but has somehow acquired it, and he attributes this undesirable fear response to the influence of the culture that one is surrounded by. Immordino-Yang and Damasio (2007) further support this idea by stating that emotions play a large part in allowing for social influences to shape one’s thought, behavior, and decision-making in a socially acceptable way, which suggests that the emotional aspect of prejudice is a result of the influence of what is considered socially acceptable. These concepts suggested by Damasio and Immordino-Yang provide support for a new perspective on the development of prejudices, which is that prejudices arise when an originally neutral stimulus somehow becomes linked to a negative emotional response as a result of social influences. This connection between the development of prejudices and emotional responses can further inform the reasons why implicit prejudices have been so resistant to change, and what can be done to reduce it despite their immutability.

Approaching the development of implicit prejudices from an emotion-based standpoint takes into consideration the ways that originally neutral stimuli unassociated with emotion, such as race stimuli, obtain their emotional associations, namely fear in this case. An emotional mechanism that explains this development is the process of emotional learning, which involves the ways that an event or stimulus becomes emotionally significant, or connected to a certain emotional response (Phelps, 2006). According to Phelps (2006), a specific emotional learning process that involves the development of emotionally neutral stimuli to one that is associated with a fear response is classical fear conditioning, which occurs mainly in the amygdala, an area that, as seen previously, has been shown to take part in the experience of prejudice. Classical fear conditioning is a learning process where a previously neutral, emotionally unrelated stimulus is paired with an aversive event, such as a shock, and the pairing is repeated until the presentation of just the original stimulus begins to elicit fear-related emotional reactions, such as changes in heart rate, freezing, anxiety, avoidance, and so on. While studies on fear conditioning generally use a physically aversive experience, fear conditioning can occur through symbolic or observational means as well, such as communication, instruction, or social observation (Phelps, 2006). Being repeatedly told that a certain stimulus deserves a fear response, or frequently observing such a response in others, can result in a conditioned fear response where an originally neutral stimulus or event becomes associated with the emotion of fear. The fact that the amygdala is frequently active when black-white racial biases arise implicitly (Kubota et al., 2012) and that it is additionally critical in fear conditioning suggests that the development of prejudice is linked to subtle forms of conditioned emotional responses.

In fact, a study conducted by Conger, Dygdon, and Rolluck (2012) found that increasing levels of adverse experiences with people of certain racial groups, whether through direct, observational, or verbal means, led to an increase in aversive responses, such as anxiety and avoidance. Although it is unlikely that every child undergoes frequent aversive experiences with an individual of another race that results in the development of this conditioned response, the fact that fear conditioning can occur through social observation suggests the more likely ways through which fear becomes associated with certain racial groups. This idea that aversive experiences with certain groups can lead to fear conditioning in children is incredibly significant due to the prevalence of subtle behaviors that suggest discrimination in individuals even if they are not aware of such biases. Studies have shown that a greater level of implicit bias is associated with subtly aversive and uncomfortable behaviors, such as less eye contact and more blinking (Dovidio et al., 1997, 2002 as cited in Amodio and Devine, 2006), speech hesitations, smiling or lack thereof, sitting distance from certain individuals (McConnell and Leibold, 2001 as cited in Amodio and Devine, 2006), and so on. In all of the preceding situations, such subtly discriminatory behavior was not predicted by explicit self-reporting of biases, which were generally low or nonexistent. Despite individuals not consciously being aware of their biases, subtle elements of their behavior demonstrate avoidant or uncomfortable associations with certain race stimuli. As younger, more impressionable children are exposed to such repeated observations of people reacting aversively to race stimuli, this will lead to the development of a conditioned response to race stimuli that reflects what is common in society. For example, if a white parent frequently acts in an avoidant manner when approached by a black person, and does not act in the same way when approached by someone else of a different race, the child of the parent may just learn from observation that certain kinds of people ought to be avoided and will develop a conditioned emotional response to the sight of a black person.

The fact that the development of implicit prejudices is deeply rooted in this emotional learning mechanism explains why preventing prejudices from forming in the first place is so difficult, and also why implicit prejudices are so resistant to change. The substantial role that the influence of society plays on the conditioning of negative emotional responses to racial stimuli is incredibly difficult to manage, since it requires that every person a young, impressionable child interacts with needs to act in a completely unbiased way. Although it is possible for an individual to control their emotional responses, doing so requires a substantial amount of effort (Frijda, 1988). Additionally, according to Damasio (2010), willful control of emotions cannot prevent the bulk of the emotional process from occurring, which involves internal bodily changes and expression-based changes that are out of conscious control, such as frequency of blinking, which is one of the subtle discriminatory behaviors that implicit prejudices can predict. Especially since emotional responses are automatic and unconscious, such behavior is incredibly difficult to control, and it is unreasonable to expect every person in a community to put in the tremendous amount of effort needed for a bias-free society to form. As a result, an already unconsciously prejudiced society conditions children to internalize negative or avoidant emotional responses to racial stimuli, which manifests subtly in their behavior as they develop, and such behavior serves to act as conditioning material for the children after them. Such a cycle continues without end and explains why implicit prejudices have been so difficult to reduce and eliminate.


The emotional component of prejudice provides the means to explain the resistance of implicit prejudices to change, which is due to this seemingly unchangeable cycle of prejudice. Such a conclusion may suggest a pessimistic image of the future of prejudice reduction, since it seems like the reduction of implicit prejudices may be near impossible in the society we currently live in. However, with modern technology and a bit of open-mindedness, it may be possible to create a controlled environment to foster more neutral or positive emotional associations with racial stimuli. One method may be one that utilizes the Internet to create controlled chat or communication spaces that could allow for the development of more positive associations with other people. In a chat room, one would not have to be concerned with their subtle discriminatory behavior when communicating with others, which reduces the pressure of controlling implicit behaviors in every person. Additionally, communication through a controlled Internet space could provide people with more time to think about their responses to others and potentially be less influenced by their implicit biases. In this way, perhaps younger, more impressionable children can develop in an environment that is not saturated with implicit prejudices that can lead to the conditioning of a negative emotional response to racial stimuli. While research on the use of the Internet to improve intergroup relations has found that there is potential for structured Internet interactions to reduce intergroup biases (White, Abu-Rayya, Bliuc, and Faulkner, 2015), there is still quite a way to go in that realm of research. Such an approach may be crudely idealistic on a large scale, but a bit of creativity and expanding thinking is necessary to even begin to approach an issue as deeply rooted as prejudice. At this point, considering the emotional component of prejudice is just one small, but necessary, step toward improvement of intergroup relations as a whole.



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