According to new data, Americans are becoming more accepting of people of all colors, nationalities, and sexual orientations.
Nonetheless, discrimination against persons from marginalized groups continues at alarmingly high levels.
Two explanations have been presented by scientists to explain this seeming contradiction.
According to the distributed discrimination theory, most people—even those with strong egalitarian beliefs—engage in subtle but destructive acts of discrimination on a daily basis, albeit with little or no knowledge, due to implicit biases.
The concentrated discrimination account asserts that most discriminatory acts are perpetrated by a small number of “bad actors” who are severely and deliberately biassed.
Different advice regarding how to effectively eliminate discrimination in corporations, universities, the military, and other institutions results from these contrasting hypotheses.
If the dispersed discrimination theory is right, then everyone in a given organization should receive implicit bias training.
If the concentrated discrimination theory is correct, this form of training is unlikely to diminish discrimination in the workplace, and policy should instead target explicit bias in a limited number of bad actors.
Mitchell Campbell and Markus Brauer, both of the University of Wisconsin–Madison at the time, presented a new study that investigated these theories through a series of survey studies and field tests involving 16,600 students at the university.
The findings overwhelmingly backed the focused discrimination theory, casting doubt on the idea that implicit bias is the fundamental issue.
Students responded to questions about school culture and their perceptions of peers engaging in discriminatory behavior in the survey surveys. The field tests were conducted on campus.
The researchers observed students in a staged environment engaging with a confederate (a scripted actor) who was easily identified as belonging to or not belonging to a marginalized group in each case.
The inquiry was whether pupils, unaware that they were being watched, instinctively acted positively toward the confederate.
In the “door holding” experiment, for example, a white or Black confederate followed students inside a college building.
The confederate and an onlooking researcher both documented the “focal” behavior, which was holding the door open.
Other key behaviors investigated were giving directions, picking up fallen note cards, and selecting a bus seat.
In a separate set of field tests, researchers reacted to job advertisements by submitting two résumés and cover letters to the contact person for each job: one with a prototypically white name (for example, Cody Miller) and the other with a name more characteristic of a minority group (for example, DeShawn Washington for a Black candidate).
The contact person replying at all, requesting further information, or inviting the candidate for an interview was the most prominent behaviors.
If the dispersed discrimination account was correct, marginalized students would have generally negative attitudes toward campus and peers, and much smaller percentages of students would exhibit positive focal behaviors (holding the door, providing directions, and so on) when interacting with a marginalized confederate, Campbell and Brauer reasoned.
If the concentrated discrimination theory was correct, they reasoned, the results would be the opposite: marginalized students would have generally positive attitudes about campus climate and peers in surveys, and there would be small differences in the percentages of students exhibiting the focal behaviors toward the two types of confederates.
The survey results backed up the claim of concentrated prejudice.
In one survey, white students rated the college climate higher than students of color. Students of color, on the other hand, gave mostly good assessments.
In comparison to 83 percent of white students, 64 percent of students of color said they felt respected on campus “very often” or “very often.” For example, compared to 78 percent of white students, 75 percent of students of color felt “very respected” or “extremely respected” by staff and instructors in class.
In another survey, at least 95 percent of students from three marginalized groups (students of color, LGBTQ students, and students from a minority religious organization) said that a small fraction of their classmates were responsible for campus prejudice.
Overall, the poll results suggested that discrimination is an issue on campus, but that a small number of very biased persons are the most likely cause.
The results of the field tests were consistent.
Even when statistically significant, differences in students’ treatment of disadvantaged and nonmarginalized confederates were minor.
In the “door holding” experiment, for example, 87 percent of students held the door for a white confederate, compared to 82 percent for a black confederate.
(While the majority of the kids are white, the study looked at the behavior of any students who came into contact with the confederates.) Similarly, in the “asking directions” experiment, 92 percent of students were willing to give directions to a “lost” white confederate, compared to 83 percent for an Asian confederate and 86 percent for a Muslim confederate (a white woman wearing a hijab).
In one of the résumé studies, “Cody Miller” got a response 63% of the time, whereas “DeShawn Washington” got one 54% of the time.
These findings imply that a tiny percentage of people on campus would act positively toward a white person but negatively toward a marginalized person in the conditions studied.
Overall, the findings were consistent with the Pareto principle, which holds that around 80% of the impacts of many occurrences, such as crimes or traffic accidents, arise from 20% of the causes.
Campbell and Brauer stress that these findings do not mean that discrimination is not a real issue or that discrimination accusations are overblown.
They go on to say that pro-diversity interventions can be effective, but only if they consider “the reality of prejudice in a specific setting: how many persons engage in discrimination and what forms this discrimination takes.”
If, for example, a small number of explicitly prejudiced people are responsible for the majority of all of the discrimination in a company, requiring all employees to complete implicit bias training is unlikely to solve the problem.
According to research, interventions that convey the message that nearly everyone engages in discriminatory behavior may make the workplace environment worse for marginalized employees, because nonmarginalized employees may avoid interacting with them after the training for fear of unintentionally discriminating.
There are a few flaws in the study.
Marginalized students who have strong unfavorable feelings about campus may choose not to participate in the questionnaires.
The field experiments looked at actions in which students helped the confederates with little effort on their side. When looking at actions that involve more effort, the scattered discrimination theory may hold up.
The research was carried out on a university campus where many students hold egalitarian values and strong anti-prejudice and anti-discrimination standards.
It’s feasible that the account of scattered discrimination might be accepted in other contexts.
The study also didn’t look at all of the actions that can be harmful to members of marginalized groups in various contexts, such as the use of offensive language.
Finally, this study focused on individual acts of prejudice that students may face, rather than structural bias in sectors such as health care, education, policing, and housing.
Understanding the reasons for discrimination in all of its heinous forms is a top priority for psychologists.
The notion that most people engage in discriminatory activities as a result of hidden prejudices has received considerable popular acceptance in recent years.
Hillary Clinton said in a 2016 presidential debate that “implicit bias is an issue for everyone.”
The findings of Campbell and Brauer imply that the extent to which implicit biases influence discriminatory behavior is yet unknown.
(Other research has called implicit bias tests’ validity in predicting real-world discrimination into doubt.) The design of initiatives that may one day meaningfully lower levels of discrimination will be influenced by research aiming at answering this fundamental question.
The author is: David Z. Hambrick is a professor in the department of psychology at Michigan State University. His research focuses on individual differences in cognition and the development of expertise.