Why are some people prejudiced and others are not? The authors of a study in Psychological Science investigate how some individuals are able to avoid prejudicial biases despite the pervasive human tendency to favor one’s own group.

Robert Livingston of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and Brian Drwecki of the University of Wisconsin conducted studies that examined white college students who harbored either some or no racial biases.

They found that only seven percent did not show any racial bias (as measured by implicit and explicit psychological tests), and that non-biased individuals differed from biased individuals in a fundamental way -- they were less likely to form negative affective associations in general.

To be sure, the pervasiveness of racial bias depends on how it is conceptualized and measured. When conscious or explicit attitudes are measured, very few Whites show evidence of anti-Black bias (Fazio, Jackson, Dunton, & Williams, 1995). However, when automatic or implicit attitudes are measured, the inverse is true (Devine, 1989; Fazio et al., 1995), with more than 80% of Whites showing significant evidence of anti-Black bias (Nosek et al., 2002). Devine (1989) has argued that individuals who consciously disavow prejudice are nonprejudiced, even if their nonconscious or automatic responses to Blacks are negatively biased. In contrast, Fazio et al. (1995) defined "truly" nonprejudiced individuals as those who do not show automatically activated negative associations to African Americans, and further argued that self-report measures reflect socially desirable standards of response, rather than actual racial attitudes.

Subjects completed a task that repeatedly paired unfamiliar Chinese characters with pictures that evoked positive or negative emotions (e.g., puppies or snakes). The objective was to see whether unfamiliar Chinese characters could evoke emotions by simply being paired with pictures that evoked these emotions (i.e., classical conditioning).

Results showed that nonbiased individuals were less likely than biased individuals to acquire negative affect toward characters that were paired with negative pictures. This implies that people who display less racial bias may be more resistant to the kinds of real-world conditioning that leads to racial bias in our society.

The results suggest that “whether someone is prejudiced or not is linked to their cognitive propensity to resist negative affective conditioning,” according to the authors. Thus, reducing prejudice may require more than simply adopting egalitarian values. Instead, such change may require reconditioning of the negative associations that people hold.

“Just as it is difficult to change visceral reactions to aversive foods (e.g., lima beans) through sheer force of will,” writes Livingston, “it may also be difficult to change visceral attitudes toward racial groups by acknowledging that prejudice is wrong and wanting to change.”

The authors argue that although negative affect cannot be reduced by reason alone, it could be reconditioned through positive interpersonal experiences or exposure to more positive images of Blacks in the media.

Article: Why Are Some Individuals Not Racially Biased?,Robert W. Livingston, Brian B. Drwecki (2007) Psychological Science 18 (9), 816–823.