This Week In Washington, UW Prejudice Lab

Air Date:
Heard On Central Time

A new Wisconsin project is taking a scientific approach to understanding prejudice. The director of the effort shares what research is revealing about the root of our biases and whether we can overcome them. Plus, from tension between President Trump and London Mayor Sadiq Khan to the ongoing investigation into Russia’s election meddling, we recap the biggest political stories of the week.

Featured in this Show

  • Week In Washington – June 7, 2017

    We recap the biggest headlines in national politics, from former FBI Director James Comey’s upcoming testimony to friction between President Trump and London Mayor Sadiq Khan.

  • Overcoming Our Built-In Prejudice And Stereotypes

    A Wisconsin project aims to understand how bias and stereotypes impact our daily lives–and how we can overcome prejudice. The director of the Prejudice and Intergroup Relations Lab shares the latest research.

  • Expert: You Can’t Unlearn Stereotypes But You Can Overcome Them

    Stereotyping people isn’t a choice so much as a part of our brains, a habit that can’t be shaken, said Patricia Devine, a professor of psychology and the director of the Prejudice and Intergroup Relations Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

    The Implicit Association Test, or IAT, developed by Anthony Greenwald at the University of Washington, has famously illustrated this idea. It’s a test that measures the strength of association between black and white faces and positive and negative information.

    “The typical pattern we see in white Americans is that they more strongly associate white Americans with positive information and black Americans with negative information,” Devine explained.

    Participants in this and similar studies are often taken aback, said Devine, because the test results are at stark odds with their values.

    “A lot of people sincerely embrace egalitarian values, but being socialized into our culture, they learn stereotypes very early in childhood, (around) age 3, 4 and 5. They’re firmly ingrained; they’re frequently activated, very well practiced, and they end up being the default, or habitual kind of response,” Devine said. “They get activated spontaneously, unintentionally, to the point that people aren’t aware that they get activated.”

    “And that sets up an interesting predicament for those people. Their values tell them to respond one way, and the spontaneous reactions set them up to actually violate their values,” she said.

    So having these stereotypes somewhere up in your brain isn’t really a choice. What is a choice is engaging with them.

    But is it possible to unlearn these strongly ingrained sets of ideas about particular groups?

    “I’m not sure if it’s possible to unlearn them. So for example, I disavow gender bias, race bias, and a lot of other types of biases, but I could generate instantaneously what the stereotypes are,” Devine said. “I know I shouldn’t act based on the stereotypes, but it’s not as though my awareness or my knowledge of those stereotypes just goes away.”

    There is a weak correlation between implicit bias and discriminatory behavior, but Devine’s research and interventions focus more on thought patterns than actual behaviors. She has a set of strategies to help recognize and overcome unintentionally biased thinking.

    One strategy is perspective taking. That involves reflecting on the experiences of groups that have been historically stigmatized and may continue to experience stigmatization.

    “So, taking a few moments to think about what it would be like in the STEM context to have your abilities called into question, simply because you’re a woman. Or to be thought of as a terrorist because you are Muslim. Or to be thought of as hostile and aggressive because of the color of your skin, because you’re a black person, and not because of anything that you’ve done,” Devine said.

    Another strategy is to seek out more contact from stigmatized groups — actually meet and get to know people, Devine said.

    There’s also stereotype replacement, in which you identify the situations when stereotypes are most likely to pop into your mind.

    “What we say is that you detect it, you reflect about it, you reject it, and then you can replace it with a type of response that is more congenial to your values,” she said.

    Critically, Devine has found that people who go through her intervention program retain improvements over time. Even two years later, she’s found that people who have gone through the program are more willing to challenge bias when others make biased statements.

    The program affects behaviors, too.

    “We’ve done some work the the STEM faculty here at the University of Wisconsin, and what we found is that two years after our intervention, departments that had been offered the intervention compared to control departments were more likely to hire women faculty members,” she said.

    “A lot of the biases that we see are rather ordinary; they’re these kind of habit reactions,” she said. “And I think if people understand that, they may be more understanding of their own internal experience, and they may understand better the experience of others. These associations are learned innocently.”

Episode Credits

  • Rob Ferrett Host
  • Veronica Rueckert Host
  • Haleema Shah Producer
  • Rob Ferrett Producer
  • Craig Gilbert Guest
  • Patricia Devine Guest
  • Rob Ferrett Interviewer