May 20, 2010

Implicit Bias May Make Evenhanded Application of New Immigration Law Impossible, Psychologist Says

Arizona recently adopted a new law giving police the authority to inquire about a person’s immigration status during a stop, detention, or arrest.

Reporters/editors/producers Note: The following feature was produced by the American Psychological Association. Feel free to use it in its entirety or in part; we only request that you credit APA as the source. We also have a photograph of the researcher available to reprint.

Arizona recently adopted a new law giving police the authority to inquire about a person’s immigration status during a stop, detention, or arrest. The APA interviewed social psychologist John Dovidio, PhD, of Yale University about the new law. Dr. Dovidio studies issues of social power and social relationships including the influence of explicit and implicit bias.

APA. The new law gives broad powers to police officers yet we know from research that all people including police officers have automatic or implicit bias about some racial or ethnic groups. What is implicit bias?

Dovidio. Implicit biases are beliefs (stereotypes) and feelings (prejudice) that are activated without intent, control, and often conscious awareness. These are habits of mind that develop through cultural as well as personal associations. Whereas most people no longer consciously endorse stereotypes and prejudice, the majority of people still harbor implicit biases.

APA. Will this new law lead to racial profiling within the state?

Dovidio. Stereotyping, prejudice, and biases in how people perceive and react to members of other groups typically occur automatically and with limited conscious control. These automatic processes are even more influential when people feel threatened or are under time pressure – common experiences for police officers – and thus will lead to systematic and racially/ethnically biased profiling.

APA. What are the effects of racial profiling beyond the individual; i.e. are there effects on the whole community?

Dovidio. Social identities are important for everyone, but members of traditionally disadvantaged groups generally identify particularly strongly with their group and are vigilant to being treated unfairly because of their group membership. Racial profiling is precisely the kind of injustice that offends not only the people directly involved but also the community as a whole. Moreover, because these incidents are perceived as group based, they erode trust and good will toward the majority group and to the police, as well.

APA. The Arizona governor has said that police in the state will be trained to properly apply the law. Will police officers in the state be able to overcome their implicit or unconscious bias?

Dovidio. Training of the type that is being proposed cannot consistently mitigate the effects of these implicit, and often unconscious, biases. Training may make people more aware of the potential for biased implementation of the law and help them understand better what they should be doing, but research has shown that training by itself cannot eliminate the systematic forces of implicit bias that operate unintentionally, often without awareness and the ability to control it. Training should help limit blatant abuses, but implicit biases will still play an important role in how the new police powers actually play out on the street.

APA. A second new law in Arizona is also creating controversy; this one has to do with courses that are designed primarily for students to teach them about their cultural heritage. What is the importance of knowing one’s group history and appreciating the cultural heritage of others?

Dovidio. Having a stronger sense of group connection and identity can buffer feelings of depression and distress typically produced by perceptions of discrimination. However, for more positive and productive intergroup relations today, it is important not only to recognize and value one’s heritage but also to know that one’s group is respected by other groups and that there is common connection, identity and interdependence among the different groups in our society. Educating young people about their own heritage as well as the heritage of their classmates is one way to foster that respect and connection.

The American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C., is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 152,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.