Your Racist Mental Habits

10 June 2020

By this point it’s old news that your explicit attitudes about race don’t tell the whole story about racism. When you sit down to introspect carefully, you might end up thinking consciously: “of course people of all races are equal.” But that simply does not imply that you are free from racism in your mental life. 

A flurry of studies over the past few decades have shown that even self-avowed non-racists can still be robustly implicitly biased against black people. One classic test, which you can take yourself online, has been used to show that people tend to more quickly associate the words “black” and “white” with stereotypical properties than with counter-stereotypical ones. One study found that people were more likely to misidentify a tool as a gun when they had been primed by seeing a black face than when they had been primed with a white face. Another study found that implicit negative associations with black faces were correlated with nonverbal unfriendliness in face-to-face interactions with black people. 

You are likely to have similar associations and quick reactions, even if you think you are explicitly non-racist or positively anti-racist. To mark the difference between these associations on the one hand and your stated attitudes on the other hand, many cognitive scientists call the associations “implicit” and your stated or conscious attitudes “explicit.” But how is it possible for you to take yourself not to be racist, and nonetheless have these ‘implicit’ associations? What psychological explanation can we give to make sense of this dissonance? 

There is not much agreement about how to think about the nature of this ‘implicit’ phenomenon, even among those who agree that the phenomenon is well established. Do people really have ‘hidden’ racist beliefs? Or are there simply certain impulsive processes that give rise to these demonstrated associations and reactions, without issuing in full-fledged racist beliefs? One new book out this year, An Introduction to Implicit Bias (ed. Erin Beeghly and Alex Madva), collects twelve new papers that comb through these issues.  

One of these papers, by Céline Leboeuf, raises an important possibility: our racist biases might be best understood as a form of perceptual habit—a habit of paying specific kinds of visual attention to young black men, for instance. This raises a more general possibility too: that our racist biases manifest as mental habits. You might habitually imagine some dangerous scenario playing out when you think of a young black man walking at night. Even these transitions in imaginative thought can manifest entrenched biases, and potentially affect your behavior.

Thinking of implicit biases as habits is helpful in at least three ways. First, it’s easy to see that your habits aren’t always cultivated by you. For better or for worse, your habits can be instilled in you by your social environment. Your parents probably gave you the habit of brushing your teeth before you go to bed. And your culture has probably given you a habit of associating black men with violence. Second, what you do habitually doesn’t always rise to consciousness. Think of how you can take off your shoes after coming in the door without giving it a second thought. This feature of habits could help us explain how pernicious mental associations can go unnoticed by you while you’re not paying attention. Third, if implicit biases really are a matter of mental habit, they might deserve specific kinds of interventions. To break a habit, you have to practice doing something differently. It’s not enough just to realize that you have that habit, or to realize it and think that it’s bad. You have to put in some time to change it yourself.

Research into cognitive retraining interventions to change implicit biases has rapidly developed over the past decade or so. These interventions involve affirming counter-stereotypical statements repeatedly, establishing new positive associations where there were previously negative ones, and exposing yourself to representations of people that go against stereotypical depictions of them. Some studies suggest that cognitive interventions can reduce implicit biases in the long term. Techniques are still in development, but it is worth paying close attention. Despite sounding strange, techniques for retraining our own minds will be one important part of our ongoing struggle to combat racism wherever we find it.


Photo by James Eades on Unsplash

Comments (2)

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, June 11, 2020 -- 5:09 PM

So here's something I have

So here's something I have noticed since Ken passed.

The posts here are sharper. More and more they point to philosophical work in the field that prevents bloggers like me from responding without reading more deeply.

Ray, Neil and you Antonia are taking your game to another level. Thanks so much for the push to read beyond the issues.

Now I need to find the time to do that reading.


I'm not going to let my lack depth in what you say hold back questioning your whole premise.

Racism is not cognitive bias. It is much deeper than that.

Are you a Hutu or a Tutsi? Did white slave traders hunt down dark skinned Africans or were they brought to coastal markets by Africans to be sold? When did slavery start? Did it ever end?

I will read your paper if you read Nina Jablonski's Living Color.

I'm skeptical we will ever meet in this Covid world. Pierre Nkurunziza is dead. Are you Hutu or Tutsi? I think it is more than bias ... cognition or not.

This is a very new book... and spendy. It's going to be hard to get locally. I will reserve some wiggle room once I've read through it. For now at least, Racism seems more a mystery than inhumane acts. Racists acts are our reality. Conflicts and bias seem deeper than shades of skin, in Africa itself, religious conflicts (too many to call out) and caste cultures - where us them paradigms are deeper than race.

If it's all habit and implicit bias then everything is perhaps.

Guessedworker's picture


Monday, June 15, 2020 -- 1:13 AM

Racism is a negative

Racism is a negative preference for adaptive traits. It's not "habit". It's sociobiological and universal to all humankind.

One should really separate out the aggressive equalitarian dicta of race in white homelands from the nature of human beings and see what, if anything, is left to interrogate.