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A new study finds that implicit bias is declining--though explicit bias is dropping twice as fast

Rapid shift

Bias against gay people is even decreasing on an unconscious level

By Alice Robb on July 30, 2015

In 1990, seven out of eight Americans not only believed same-sex relations were wrong; they had no qualms about admitting that to pollsters. In a Gallup poll from this year, 63 percent of Americans said they believe gay relations are morally acceptable.

It’s one of the biggest and most rapid shifts in public opinion on record; social theorists, psychologists and historians will no doubt be dissecting it for years to come. But does this dramatic change in polling numbers really reflect a change in people’s beliefs? What people say in surveys can have more to do with social pressures and political trends than their real feelings.

A new study sheds some light on that question—and finds that unconscious bias against gay people really is diminishing, though explicit bias is declining faster. The study was led by Erin Westgate, PhD candidate in psychology at the University of Virginia, along with UVA psychology professor Brian Nosek and Guilford College psychologist Rachel Riskind, and will be published on Thursday in the new open-access online journal Collabra.

They drew on data collected by Project Implicit, a non-profit launched by a group of scientists who hoped to study, and expose, our hidden biases, and their sample amounted to over 680,000 people who visited the site between 2006 and 2013. They hoped to find out whether those public opinion polls reflect “people feeling pressured to say they are more supportive, or whether they’re actually feeling that on a gut level as well,” Westgate said.

“Explicit attitudes involve conscious processes in the brain that are often slow and deliberative,” she explained. “Implicit attitudes, you can think of as gut feelings: They’re tied to automatic processes in the brain. They’re thought to direct behavior when people have to respond quickly—when they’re rushed and can’t devote as many cognitive resources to figuring out how they want to act.”

Prior research had suggested that implicit attitudes are especially resistant to change; a similarly designed study found that Obama’s election had no impact on people’s implicit racial bias.

Westgate measured explicit bias based on participants’ levels of agreement with the statement “I strongly prefer straight people to gay people” or “I strongly prefer gay people to straight people.” The test for implicit bias was less direct. Participants were shown a screen with pictures or words representing gay people—an image of two men or women side-by-side, for instance. At the same time, positive words (such as “pleasant” and “good”) and negative words (like “terrible” and “hate”) would appear on either side of the screen. In one part of the test, people were instructed to match positive words with symbols of straight people and negative words with the representations of gay people; in another section, the associations were reversed: they had to pair the positive words with gay people, and negative words with straight people. People who unconsciously hold negative beliefs about gay people tend to be quicker to pair them with unpleasant words.

Westgate and her co-authors calculated that explicit bias dropped by 26 percent between 2006 and 2013; over the same seven-year period, implicit bias decreased by 13 percent. Though the declines occurred across the board, there were demographic differences, too. The biggest changes in implicit attitude occurred among women, whites, Hispanics, liberals and younger populations.

Interestingly, the groups that demonstrated the smallest changes in implicit attitudes—men, conservatives, blacks, Asians, and older people—simultaneously registered the biggest changes in explicit attitudes.

“We could just be seeing evidence that these people—who are most biased to begin with—are feeling more pressure to be politically correct and change what they report, but inwardly haven’t changed as much,” Westgate suggested.

She prefers a different explanation, however: that change in explicit bias is a precursor of change in implicit attitudes.

“This might be how attitude change happens,” she said. “We change what we consciously endorse first, but it might take some time for that conscious decision to trickle down to the unconscious and change those associations that have built up over a long time.”