Is Implicit Bias a Product of the Person or the Situation?

A new study finds individual "biases" are ephemeral but context biases are not.

Posted Jun 11, 2019

What follows is a detective story—and it's 100% true.

In 2016, a researcher at Harvard named Calvin Lai and 28 collaborators published a large-scale experiment that tested the ability of nine different interventions to reduce levels of implicit bias. Participants in the study were 5,295 non-Black undergraduates at 18 university campuses.

Each participant first completed a widely-used measure of implicit racial bias called the Implicit Association Test (IAT). The participant was then randomly assigned to complete one of nine tasks, each of which had been designed to reduce nonconscious racial prejudice. One intervention, for example, reminded participants of their deeply-held egalitarian values. Another intervention conditioned participants to associate Black faces with positive words and White faces with negative words. Immediately after the intervention, participants completed the Race IAT a second time. The following day, they received a request to complete the Race IAT a third time.

Lai's 2016 study was truly impressive. A controlled experiment that compared nine interventions using a longitudinal design (albeit only over two or three days) and a very large number of participants at 18 different campuses.

The study's basic design looked like this: A pretest measure of implicit racial bias, followed by exposure to an intervention, followed by an immediate post-test, followed a few days later by a delayed post-test.

Did the interventions work? Did participants show lower levels of bias after completing one of the tasks? Yes and no. All nine interventions produced a modest reduction in IAT scores on the immediate post-test, but none of the interventions produced a lasting effect after two days.

Lai and his team concluded that implicit biases are not amenable to change. "The intervention effects were fleeting, lasting less than a couple of days. These findings are a testament to how the mind's prejudices remain steadfast in the face of efforts to change them" (Lai et al., 2016, p. 1014).

Enter the detectives, two social psychologists at the University of North Carolina who looked at the same data clues and came to a different conclusion about "who dunnit."

Heidi Vuletich and Keith Payne read Lai's 2016 study and realized something else might be going on. They looked at Lai's data and published their own analysis just last month in the journal Psychological Science.

Vuletich and Payne aimed to answer two questions.

  1. Are individual implicit biases indelible attitudes? Or are they like the weather, changing from day to day?
  2. Do some contexts and situations reliably produce higher levels of implicit bias at the level of the group?

Vuletich and Payne were familiar with the studies showing individuals' scores on the Race IAT tend to be unstable over time. The same person can score very differently from one day to the next. (The test-retest correlation of the Race IAT is about .40. Measures with test-retest coefficients lower than .60 are said to be "insufficiently reliable" for research purposes.)

Vuletich and Payne had also read the studies showing IAT scores are only weakly correlated with actual discriminatory behaviors. Knowing a White person's score on the Race IAT, for example, does not allow you to predict how that person will act when given a chance to discriminate against a Black person. (In the language of psychological research, the Race IAT has "weak predictive validity.")

With these scientific findings in mind, Vuletich and Payne reanalyzed the data collected by Lai. They discovered something important that Lai and his team had missed.

Lai and his colleagues thought individuals' IAT scores two days after the intervention had returned to their personal baseline scores (before the beginning of the study). But that was only true at the aggregate (campus) level. The scores of individual students simply fluctuated over time, mostly randomly. The test-retest reliability of the IAT was very poor—0.25 to be exact.

What stayed the same between the initial pretest and the delayed post-test was the average IAT score at each of the 18 university campuses. So lots of fluctuations and variability at the individual level, but impressive stability at the campus level.

How can we make sense of all this? Vuletich and Payne hypothesized that some contexts and social settings make concepts linked to race more cognitively accessible. People who inhabit these situations will exhibit more implicit bias because information that's related to racial stereotypes comes to mind more easily.

To test this hypothesis, Vuletich and Payne measured three characteristics of the 18 campuses.

Brent Moore/flickr
Confederate Statue
Source: Brent Moore/Flickr
  1. Was a Confederate monument publicly displayed on campus? (a sign of historical racism)
  2. What percentage of the full-time faculty were non-White? (a measure of diversity)
  3. What percentage of students whose parents occupied the poorest income quintile (bottom fifth) made it to the top quintile in adulthood? (a measure of social mobility)

Vuletich and Payne found that implicit racial bias was strongly associated with the three campus characteristics. Specifically, average IAT scores were significantly higher on campuses that displayed a Confederate monument but significantly lower on campuses with more diversity and greater social mobility.

Vuletich and Payne's findings suggest that implicit bias isn't a rigid attitude and isn't a stable characteristic of individuals. Instead, it's a transient response to a particular situation. According to the authors, "implicit bias is a social phenomenon that passes through individuals like 'the wave' passes through fans in a stadium" (p. 859). 

If implicit bias isn't a product of the person, where does it come from? According to Vuletich and Payne, certain situations "encourage discrimination more than others, largely independently of the individual decision makers passing through those contexts" (p. 859).

If the goal is to reduce or eliminate racial bias, educators and policymakers may want to focus their efforts on changing the values and norms inherent in certain social settings, not the minds of individual people.


Lai, C. K., Skinner, A. L., Cooley, E., Murrar, S., Brauer, M., Devos, T., Calanchini, J., Xiao, Y. J., Pedram, C., Marshburn, C. K., Simon, S., Blanchar, J. C., Joy-Gaba, J. A., Conway, J., Redford, L., Klein, R. A., Roussos, G., Schellhaas, F. M. H., Burns, M., Hu, X., McLean, M. C., Axt, J. R., Asgari, S., Schmidt, K., Rubinstein., R, Marini, M., Rubichi, S., Shin,. J. L., & Nosek, B. A. (2016). Reducing implicit racial preferences: II. Intervention effectiveness across time. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 145, 1001-1016.

Vuletich, H. A., & Payne, B. K. (2019). Stability and change in implicit bias. Psychological Science, 30, 854-862.

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