One afternoon last fall, Emile Bruneau, a cognitive neuroscientist from MIT, met with three research assistants at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, to plan a series of behavioral experiments. The school system in Hungary (and in many if not most other European countries) has a history of discriminating against Roma students, going so far as to segregate them in separate schools and classrooms. Bruneau wanted to measure anti-Roma biases in a group of school teachers, and then see if and how those biases influenced the teachers’ behavior towards Roma students.
The experiment would go like this:
Each teacher, in their turn, would be made to sit in front a computer screen and communicate with a student who they believed was in another room, completing a numbers and logic quiz as part of a study of online learning. They would be tasked with giving feedback as the student progressed through the quiz, and would have the option of giving positive, neutral, or negative feedback at each interval. The “students” were really actors (some of them Roma, and some of them non-Roma) that Emile’s team had pre-recorded assuming different postures (attentive, bored, frustrated, pleased, and so on).
Once the “quiz” was completed, the teachers would be asked to evaluate a different student’s written profile to determine whether or not that student should be placed in special education. The student would have either a conspicuously Roma name, or a conspicuously non-Roma name, but his actual race would not be disclosed on the form. The two modules – online learning and student evaluations – would be presented to the teachers as a separate experiment with a different aim. The idea was to keep the true intentions of the study hidden from the teachers, so as not to trigger any feigned responses.
That would take a bit of deception. Bruneau suggested that his research assistants think of themselves as actors in a play. “We want them to believe that these are real students that they’re interacting with, students who are sitting at a similar computer screen in a nearby building,” he explained. “So just think of things you would do if that were true. You’d maybe text the person in that other room, or wait to hear from them before hitting the start button.”
Here’s the thing about racial prejudice: while few people would disagree that it’s a root cause of racial inequality, even fewer would cop to being guilty of it themselves. We live on a planet rife with ethnic tension; racial prejudice is both the loud and conspicuous engine driving that tension, and the elusive ghost inside the machine. It is everywhere and nowhere at once. As I was reporting on Bruneau’s work in Hungary, Ferguson Missouri was tipping into chaos. I remembering tracking the mix of reactions trickling off my Facebook feed: lots of outrage and empathy and solidarity. But also plenty of people arguing that what happened to Michael Brown (and to Eric Garner) had nothing to do with race. Those arguments were rooted in ignorance and conscious denial, to be sure.
But it’s not just the gaps between understanding and reality, or between what we think and what we say that trip us up. It’s also the gap between what we think and what we think we think. Discrepancies between our conscious and subconscious impede both our capacity for impartial judgment and our ability to recognize that impediment, even when it’s smacking us in the face.
One of the chief goals of research psychologists is to tease these strands apart – to reveal our hidden minds to us, and to see how well or how poorly our thinking aligns with our behavior. Broadly speaking, they have three tools at their disposal: brain scans that measure neural responses to various stimuli; behavioral experiments that gauge individual responses to contrived situations, and psychological assessments that evaluate responses to computer tests and questionnaires. None of these approaches is infallible. But used together, they’ve helped researchers begin to map the connections between subconscious bias, and actual behavior:
Neuroimaging studies suggest that our brains respond differently to black vs. white faces – both in brain regions involved in basic social perception, and in brain regions involved in threat detection. For example, activity in the amygdala, a region associated with fear learning and threat detection, is higher in White subjects when they view Black faces than it is when they view White ones. Likewise, in a 2009 study, , when Chinese and Caucasian individuals watched a video of a person’s face being pierced with a needle (vs. touched with a Q-tip) there was less response when the ethnicity of person did not match ethnicity of observer. Likewise, when white participants watched a white hand being pierced by a needle, motor activity in the observer’s hand was suppressed as if they had been pricked themselves. This didn’t happen when watching black hands.
Behavioral experiments show that even “explicit egalitarians” associate Black men with violence. In one 2005 study, participants were presented with a photograph of a man holding either a gun or cell phone, and forced to decide very quickly whether to shoot (if the person was holding a gun) or withhold fire (if they were holding a cell phone). White participants (including professional police officers) shot faster if the person holding the gun was black, and mistakenly shot the cell phone holder more often if he or she was black.
Psychological assessments reveal just how common implicit biases can be. The most famous psychological assessment is the IAT, or implicit association test (sometimes referred to as the “racist test”). It measures exactly what its name suggests: subconscious associations that people make between various images and concepts. It does this by comparing how long a person takes to match certain words and images to one another. A person might readily link the word “safe” with a white face, for example, but take longer to link it to a black face. That difference in time is seen as a reliable measure of unconscious bias because it takes more time to link words and images that the mind deems incompatible.
The IAT was developed in 1994 by researchers at Harvard University. In the two decades since, millions of people – mostly Americans – have taken it, and research psychologists have come to embrace it as a well-validated, and useful tool. But it remains controversial. Critics argue that snap-associations made in a contrived setting are not the same thing as racial prejudice. It’s possible, after all, that the results of such tests simply reflect an awareness of social reality. In Eastern Europe, for example, Roma students attend inferior schools as a rule, and tend to be academically behind as a result. One can know that at a deep subconscious level, without necessarily believing that Roma are intellectually inferior, right?
Maybe. But Bruneau and many others say that regardless of where those associations come from, they impact behavior in consistent and often deleterious ways. Whether or not it’s predicated on an assumption about Roma aptitude, for example, the implicit association of Roma with low-quality education sets a cascade of discriminatory behaviors in motion.
“The non-Roma don’t want their kids to go to schools with lots of Roma students,” says Anna Kende, a social psychologist at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, and a collaborator of Bruneau’s. “And the good teachers don’t want to teach there either. So you get stuck with the bad teachers and the poorest students. And then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Play that prophecy forward, she says, and you’ll begin to see how individual biases grow into large structural problems.
There are several permutations of the IAT, each one measuring a different strain of racial bias: the extent to which we subscribe to stereotypes, for example, or the extent to which we attribute (or fail to attribute) human-specific emotions to different racial groups. Bruneau had already administered several different tests like that to his schoolteacher volunteers on a previous trip to Budapest. Once this behavioral experiment was complete, he would compare all of the results to see which aspects of racial bias – stereotyping, dehumanization, or affect (the amount of warmth we feel towards members of a given racial group) – were most predictive of the teachers’ treatment of Roma students, and of their support for school segregation in general.
“What we hope to have at the end is a validated anti-Roma bias battery,” he said. “And then we can use that to decide which aspects of bias we should target in the intervention phase.”
Behavioral interventions are tricky business for the same reason that studying racial bias is: our subconscious minds exert enormous influence over our behavior. A few years back, the World Bank disseminated a poster as part of its Roma inclusion initiative in Hungary: it depicted the demographic curves of the Hungarian and Roma populations side by side, to make the point that the Roma have a much greater reserve of young people, and that those young people will become either an economic boon or an economic drain depending on how well they are educated. The hope was that the data would convince people that educating Roma children was in their own best interest.
“It made logical sense,” Bruneau says. “But that’s also the kind of thing that triggers threat, and threat is a dramatic psychological force that pushes people to become more stereotypically bias.” In other words, the posters were apt to do more harm than good because our behavior is not necessarily driven by rational thought or, for that matter, moral principals. In fact, social norms tend to exert a much greater influence than either; that is, we are much more likely to act based on our understanding of how other people act, than based on our own sense of right and wrong.
There are as many studies demonstrating this tendency as there are examples of behavioral interventions that neglect to take it into account. In one experiment that Bruneau likes to cite, a researcher at Arizona State University came across a sign in Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park that read, Your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time
Curious about whether the impact that sign was having on behavior, he decided to do a little experiment. His research team placed different signs at the entrances to different hiking trails in the park. One sign contained a social norm. The other didn’t. The researchers hand marked pieces of petrified wood along both trails, and then went back and measured how much had been taken from each. Here’s what they found:
In his lectures, Bruneau cites non-experimental examples, too: an anti-litter campaign in the U.S. that ran with a sign reading, Cigarette butts are the most commonly littered item; an anti-rape campaign in West Africa that deployed a series of posters depicting rape, and explaining how pervasive it was.
“Signs like these give us two messages at once,” he says. “They tell us ‘don’t do this,’ and ‘everyone else is doing this.’ And it’s the second message that’s more powerful for us.” His own work was predicated on a very straightforward premise: science could do a much better job than common sense at helping us design interventions that actually worked.
The Psychology Department for Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest sits in an upstairs corner of an old, communist-era school building. Bruneau’s behavioral experiment was being run in an office / meeting room there. I stopped by one afternoon to get a look. It was quiet. A few research assistants milled about while a teacher – a young woman with short brown hair, in jeans and a soft blue shirt – sat in front of a computer console completing what she believed was a study of online learning habits. I wondered if she suspected the true aim of the study, and how she would react if it were suddenly revealed to her. She did not look racist. I guess nobody does. I guess that’s the point.
Afterwards, I grabbed coffee with Hannah Szekeres, Bruneau’s research assistant. Szekeres was a Hungarian Jew; she had grown up in Budapest and was now living in Tel Aviv and pursuing a PhD in social psychology. She had returned to her native city to run the teacher study for Bruneau, and between that and the latest round of violence in Gaza, she had been thinking almost nonstop about inter-group conflict and racial prejudice. We got to comparing the U.S. to Israel to Hungary.
I told her about my Facebook feed.
“That’s nothing,” she said. “Here, even the liberals will compare the Roma to animals.”
The way Szekeres saw it, there were three types of people: those who were openly prejudiced, those who insisted that they held all ethnic groups as equal, and those who understood that we all harbor biases – some conscious, some subconscious – and that what matters is how we deal with them. She hoped that the study would help pull more people into this third group, and that over time, that shift in thinking would lead to real change. “It’s really great and important for the Roma to have equal access to education,” she said. “But that doesn’t solve the whole problem because once they are educated, they still have to deal with the majority’s perception of them.”
It was too soon to guess at the results of the teacher experiment. But she had had some interesting exchanges with the subjects.
“We asked this one very nice girl if she thought the education profile was Roma,” she told me. “She said, ‘Oh, you mean because the score was so low? Yeah, I thought so.’ And then we asked her at the end if she thought she would have rated the student differently if the students were Roma vs. non-Roma, and she said no immediately.”
They all said no to that question, Szekeres told me. Without even thinking about it.
All posts in the Roma Reporting Project were supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.