How Confrontation of Biased Behavior Changes Attitudes and Behavior

By Jordan Axt

Laura Parker, of Purdue University, recently published a series of studies in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in which she and her colleagues examined what happens when people are made aware if their biased decision-making. They wanted to know whether confronting people with their biased behavior is enough to change their attitudes, or whether it will cause people to become defensive and dismiss the feedback.

Parker and her colleagues tested this question using a paradigm from a well-known study of gender bias in hiring. In that study, professors evaluated applicants for a research assistant position in a science laboratory. Some professors received an application with a male name and some received an application with a female name; otherwise, the applications were identical. This study showed that female applicants were rated as less competent, and thus less hireable, than male applicants who had identical qualifications.

In Parker's studies, participants completed a similar task, where they evaluated either a male or female applicant for a hypothetical position in a science laboratory. Some participants who evaluated a female applicant were then “confronted” with evidence of their biased behavior. These participants were (falsely*) told that their ratings of the female applicant were not positive enough, and that this was evidence of gender bias in their behavior. Relative to participants who received no information about gender bias, those given the evidence of biased behavior felt greater guilt, discomfort, and concern about addressing future prejudiced behavior. Similar results emerged when participants were told that their evaluation of an African American applicant was indicative of racial bias.

These findings suggest that, although confrontation about one's bias might lead to negative emotions (e.g., guilt and discomfort), it also has the potential to lead to behavior change. Note that the researchers did not measure actual behavior change, which is a limitation of the work. However, they did show that participants viewed the feedback as legitimate enough to change their attitudes and their intended behavior, so the results are certainly promising for promoting bias-reduction.

Such work suggests that documenting real-world biases and showing their impact may be an effective route for motivating people to address bias in their own behavior (though, such interventions should focus on revealing to people the bias in their actual behavior, rather than using false feedback). In all, these studies shed light on the promising prospect that people may take to heart evidence of their biased behavior, and use that information to change their attitudes about bias and their intended behavior.

*Participants were fully debriefed at the end of the study.