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Prejudice can form unconsciously by observing others' bias

Prejudices are something we’ve all heard of through the age-old adage, “Monkey see, monkey do.”

Some may see it as a joke, but recent research suggests there’s more truth to it than we may realize, specifically when it comes to forming prejudices.

The way we view people and the biases we develop might not necessarily be a product of our own experiences but rather a reflection of the prejudice we witness.

Invisible formation of bias

So, what exactly is happening? According to this groundbreaking study helmed by psychologists from the University of Amsterdam (UvA), our prejudices can be unconsciously formed simply by observing others’ interactions. It’s a phenomenon we may not be aware of, making it difficult for us to control.

“What we found in our research is that prejudice can form by merely observing other people’s social interactions,” said study co-author David Amodio.

“When an observer views a prejudiced person’s interaction with a group member, they unconsciously form the same prejudice. Moreover, because observers are unaware that they picked up this bias, they go on to act with prejudice in their own behavior.”

This unconscious bias extends beyond just forming an opinion. It can significantly impact our behavior as well.

We can pick up this bias without realizing it and then act based on this prejudice in our own behavior. It’s a subtle yet powerful way that prejudice can spread.

Observational prejudices and modern living

As potent as this mechanism is, it becomes even more of a concern when we consider our exposure to prejudiced behavior through multiple channels in this digital age.

A simple scroll through social media or a casual evening spent watching TV can expose us to numerous biased interactions that can subconsciously influence our biases.

This mechanism helps to explain how societal prejudices spread so easily, for example, through the viewing of TV programs, YouTube, or other social media where biased interactions with certain groups take place.

By merely observing those interactions, vicariously and with no direct contact, people may take on the same prejudices.

Controlled experiments reveal bias formation

The study carried out controlled experiments where participants watched an actor interact with two different groups.

During the experiments, a research participant viewed interactions between an actor and members of two different groups.

Across participants, the actor varied in prejudice, but the behavior of group members was always identical.

As predicted, the observers developed a preference aligned with the actor’s prejudice, showing how easily we can internalize biases we see in others.

Deceptive nature

What’s even more alarming is how deceptive this mechanism can be.

The study found that “observers were unaware that they were influenced by the prejudiced actor; instead, they misperceived worse behavior from group members who interacted with a prejudiced actor, when in fact, members of both groups acted the same.”

“A troubling implication is that, because the observer believes that their preference is based on objective evidence, they have no reason to question it or control it,” said Amodio.

In other words, we can grow convinced that our prejudice is based on personal observation and rightful judgement, making it harder to recognize our bias and change our behavior.

Knowledge of this mechanism, as brought to light by these researchers, is a first step towards understanding and combating the unconscious formation of prejudices in society.

Mitigating unconscious prejudice

Given the insidious nature of observational bias, the next logical step is developing strategies to mitigate its impact.

One potential avenue is educational programs focused on awareness and critical thinking. Educating individuals about the existence and influence of unconscious prejudice can empower them to question their assumptions and the sources from which they derive their judgments.

Another promising approach involves promoting diverse and inclusive environments. By exposing individuals to a wide range of perspectives and interactions, we can dilute the effects of observed prejudiced behavior.

Encouraging media literacy and critical consumption of digital content can also help individuals recognize and filter biased portrayals they encounter.

Ultimately, while unconscious prejudice formed through observational learning presents a daunting challenge, understanding its mechanisms provides a pathway to fostering a more equitable society.

By acknowledging the hidden ways in which biases are formed and actively working to counteract them, we can take significant steps towards reducing prejudice and promoting inclusivity.

The study is published in the journal Science Advances.


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