Columbia University Scholars Develop an Intervention to Combat Unconscious Racial Bias

Certain facial features — like downturned lips and a heavy brow — are known to make someone appear untrustworthy to others, even though these do not indicate a person’s actual character. Such facial biases influence our everyday social interactions as well as high-stakes decisions, including who we hire, elect to political office, or find guilty of a crime.

But a new study by researchers at Columbia University in New York City shows that the effects of these judgments can be mitigated. The study outlines the results of four experiments that the authors conducted with 1,400 volunteers. Through those experiments, the researchers found that when real-world defendants have facial features that appear untrustworthy, they are more likely to be sentenced to death than life in prison. They also found that mock jurors were more likely to recommend a ruling against hypothetical defendants with an untrustworthy facial appearance. To get people to overcome these biases, the researchers developed a training intervention. Participants who underwent the training stopped relying on facial stereotypes, while participants in a control group who never received training remained strongly biased.

While prior research testing interventions that raise people’s awareness of their facial bias and ask them to stop have failed to achieve success in reducing that bias, this new intervention operating on more unconscious principles was able to eliminate facial biases very successfully. The researchers were able to eliminate bias not only in participants’ conscious decisions but also in their unconscious reactions. This is important because unconscious reactions can still wreak havoc on people’s behavior, even when conscious decisions appear to be unbiased.

“These findings bolster prior work that facial stereotypes may have disastrous effects in the real world, but, more importantly, provide a potential inroad toward combating these sorts of biases,” said Jon Freeman, an associate professor of psychology and co-author of the study. “By exposing a cognitive pathway toward eradicating facial stereotypes, future research must investigate whether this training could be broadly applied and how to ensure the bias reduction persists over time.”

The full study, “Reducing Facial Stereotype Bias in Consequential Social Judgments: Intervention Success With White Male Faces,” was published on the website of the journal Psychological Science. It may be accessed here.

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