Scientists have repeatedly shown, using a number of different methods, that most of us have less empathy for people who don’t look like us (the ‘out-group’) compared to those that do (the ‘in-group’).
It's sad news - but it's something we might have control over.
Many of the snap judgments or unconscious decisions we make are modulated by activity of the brain’s amygdala.
Experiments have shown that when people are given longer to react to images of faces from an out-group, the activity of their amygdala is lower than when they have less time to respond (0.5 seconds as opposed to 0.03).
During this elongated period, there is increased activity in regions of the brain associated with inhibition and self-control.
Can we change our prejudice?
While there are a lots of studies looking at implicit bias, scientists are becoming more interested in whether higher order processes (those which we have more conscious control over) can modify our prejudice. The results look promising, with research suggesting that, with conscious effort, we can reduce our own bias.
So where can we start – both as individuals, and at a societal level?
The Implicit Association Test (IAT), while not without its controversies, is a method used by some psychologists to measure people’s unconscious bias. Scientists warn that the results of the tests should not be over interpreted – and it’s recommended that if you’re going to take the test then you should familiarise yourself with the information on Project Implicit’s website before doing so.
What the test does do is provide us with the opportunity to recognise (as much as we may like to deny it) that we may well harbour some unconscious racism. Becoming aware of our implicit bias lays the groundwork towards making a change.
A perhaps more effortful step towards reducing implicit bias is for us to increase our opportunities for contact with people from out-groups.
Doing this is useful in the fight against racism because it provides a channel for counter-stereotyping, individuation and perspective taking.
- Counter-stereotyping is the action of imagining a person who represents the opposite of a stereotypical attribute of their particular group. These people can be imaginary, famous or from a real-life experience.
- The process of individuation involves learning specific details about out group members. Theoretically, this helps us evaluate people based on personal attributes, rather than ingrained stereotypes. One particular study showed that when we imagine whether the person sitting in front of us may like a particular vegetable, it stimulates less amygdala activity than when we are trying to guess their age. When we think of people’s personalities, as opposed to their physical attributes, we are reigning in the use of our conscious thought processes.
- In perspective taking, we take on the perspective of a person from an out-group. In the SBS documentary, The Truth About Racism (Wednesday March 1, 8:30pm on SBS and available on SBS On Demand thereafter), we see two of the show’s participants experience the benefits of this very process, as they are instructed to sit down and ask each other increasingly personal questions. As the pair begin to relate to each other, the effect of their previous discrepancies begins to dissolve.
Studies have also shown that consuming content – such as books or televisions shows - made by or positively depicting groups other than our own, can help us generate more positive feelings towards those groups.
It’s up to you: #FU2Racism
Racism has a huge impact on the quality of life for many Australians.
Almost half of indigenous Australians report having recently experienced racism – a statistic which has called for reform at an institutional level.
But there is plenty that we can do as individuals, too, to make a change towards a less racist culture within our beautiful and multi-cultured country.
Face Up To Racism #FU2Racism with a season of stories and programs challenging preconceptions around race and prejudice. Tune in to watch Is Australia Racist? (airs on Sunday 26 February at 8.30pm), Date My Race (airs Monday 27 February at 8.30pm) and The Truth About Racism (airs Wednesday 1 March at 8.30pm).
Watch all the documentaries online after they air on SBS On Demand.