Researchers have long suspected that many people hold implicit prejudices—immediate, unconscious biases against people of other races and ethnicities.

These biases show up on tasks in which people rapidly match negative and positive words with black and white faces. It turns out that they are quicker to match the positive words to the white faces and the negative words to the black faces.

In fact, about 80 percent to 90 percent of white people show this bias, said prejudice researcher Patricia Devine, PhD, at an APA 2011 Annual Convention session.

But most of the time people don't realize they have these biases, instead believing that they are open-minded and blind to race. Meanwhile, a growing number of leading scholars in the prejudice field, such as Princeton University's Susan Fiske, PhD, implicate this unseen bias in fueling discrimination, said Devine.

"Implicit biases are associated with a wide range of discriminatory outcomes," she said, "everything from seemingly mundane ones—like how close or far you sit to someone or the kind of eye contact you make with them in an intergroup situation—to undeniably consequential ones like being denied an employment opportunity or being less likely to receive lifesaving medical treatments."

In an effort to combat implicit bias and its harmful results, Devine and other prejudice researchers have been testing various anti-bias training methods. And there's good news from Devine's latest study: One adaptation of these approaches appears to reduce implicit bias, and to sustain that effect over time.  

Implicit bias operates much like any habit, said Devine, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Breaking that habit requires several deliberate steps:

  • Becoming aware of one's implicit bias.

  • Being concerned about the consequences of the bias.

  • Learning to replace the biased response with non-prejudiced responses—ones that more closely match the values people consciously believe that they hold.

Once people take the first step, they're more likely to take the next ones, said Devine. This is because awareness of prejudiced responses leads to guilt, which leads to self-regulation to prevent future prejudice.

Devine started her investigation by recruiting 91 nonblack college students and assessing their self-reported racial attitudes and implicit bias, as indicated by the face-word task. All participants received feedback on their task performance, but only half received the educational intervention, in which they learned about implicit bias and how it perpetuates discrimination. For example, they heard about the photo-caption controversy that erupted after Hurricane Katrina: In one photo, a black man was said to have "looted" a grocery store; in another, a white couple was said to have "found" items from a store.

Finally, the intervention group learned research-based strategies to combat bias, including empathizing with and imagining people as the opposite of their stereotypes.Both the intervention and control groups were tested again postintervention. The results, said Devine, are notable: Both groups started out as equivalent in implicit bias, but, four weeks later, only the intervention group showed a significant reduction in it. The effect persisted through week eight.

"This is the first study I know of showing a sustained drop in implicit bias, and I am considering eight weeks sustained," said Devine.

The study also revealed an association between higher self-reported concern about bias and lower implicit-bias scores. These patterns held when Devine's team retested the participants two years later.

What's not clear is which parts of the intervention made the difference—was it teaching participants about the existence and effects of implicit bias, or was it giving them tools to combat it?

"That," said Devine, "is a question for future research."

Bridget Murray Law is a writer in Silver Spring, Md.