Empowering people to break the prejudice habit

May 6th 2018 | Patricia Devine, special to the State Journal
Faculty, Social Sciences
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Overcoming biases and stereotypes about groups of people requires motivation to alter thought and behavioral patterns, awareness of unintended biases and sustained effort toward making long-term changes to learned behaviors, Professor Patricia Devine has found. (iStock photo)

Do you ever make snap judgments about others and then, upon reflection, wish you hadn’t?

You are not alone. These spontaneous, unintentional thoughts, rooted in stereotypes, pose quite a predicament for those who disavow prejudice.

Unintended thoughts lead even well-meaning individuals to become unwittingly complicit in perpetuating discrimination. Exploring this predicament is at the center of my research: Why do biases persist among egalitarians and can such biases be reduced?

Many pessimistically conclude that statements rejecting prejudice are little more than lip service to PC norms. Though perhaps true in some cases, such sweeping – and pessimistic – statements sell many of our fellow citizens short.

Stereotypic biases are the result of being inundated with stereotypic messages early in childhood. So frequent is the exposure to stereotypes that these biases become habits of mind – default ways of thinking about others. This is true whether or not we question the wisdom of judging others through the lenses of stereotypes later in life.

The habit metaphor is useful because it explains why unwanted biases persist and it provides a roadmap for change.

The process of breaking the prejudice habit is quite similar to breaking other habits, such as biting one’s nails, except that detecting stereotypic biases can be trickier because stereotypic influences are often subtle and more difficult to detect than nail biting.

The necessary ingredients to break the prejudice habit include motivation, awareness, strategies and effort.

Motivation sets up the intention to break the habit and though necessary, it is not sufficient to break the habit.

People also need to become aware of and tune in to when they are most vulnerable to unintended biases and to take steps to respond more intentionally. People need strategies to prevent falling into the habit of thinking of others in stereotypic ways.

Finally, as anyone who has ever tried to break a habit knows, change does not occur without sustained effort. We developed and tested an intervention based on a habit-breaking approach and found that change can, and does, happen. And, the effects are both broad and enduring.

The necessary ingredients to break the prejudice habit include motivation, awareness, strategies and effort.

People who have participated in the training become more concerned that discrimination is a widespread, serious problem that is important to address compared to those without the training. They also show greater awareness of biases in themselves and others.

Two years following the training, people who participated in a social media forum on race were more likely to speak out against bias.

Importantly, we have found that personal change spreads to others and to group decision-making in ways that reduce organizational bias and promote fairer hiring decisions, creating important and meaningful change.

Some have asked why I focus on empowering individuals to change when the problem of prejudice is systemic, involving structural bias.

Though I concede that prejudice is a multifaceted problem and that structural change is necessary, people don’t have to wait for organizational change to trickle down.

After all, organizations are made up of people – people who can be powerful agents of change within themselves and within their organizations. We can create the change we seek.


Patricia G. Devine is the Kenneth and Mamie Clark Professor in the Department of Psychology. Her research examines how people manage challenges associated with prejudice in society. She develops interventions to mitigate unintentional forms of bias. Her recent work focuses on sources of motivation for managing interpersonal aspects of relations between groups and the issues that these create.

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