Cognitive Judgments and Racial Bias
Racial categories are among the most explosive social categories that history has given to us. Historically, racial designations have their origin in ranking and branding systems. In the past, the various racial designations were thought to reflect valence differences as obvious as Walmart versus Nordstrom. This history of semantic usage has a cognitive and socially collective residue in System 1 and System 2 perceptions of race.
Implicit Social Cognition
In the 1990s, social psychologists Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald coined the phrase “implicit social cognition” and later generated a psychological test called the Implicit Association Test (IAT). This test is aimed at measuring the relationship between implicit, automatic associations of System 1 and slow, deliberative self-reports of System 2 with respect to racial perception.3
The IAT has many versions, but they all have in common the detection of System 1 implicit, attitudinal associations. Perhaps the most famous versions are ones that measure racialized bias. (Click here for an online IAT.)
The Race IAT is essentially a combination of a sorting and pairing assessment that measures whether test takers more readily and easily pair a racial categorization with a particular valence. For example, is a test taker faster at pairing a positive valence (e.g., “pleasant”) with white faces or black faces? The possible implication is that such a test taker implicitly associates negative words or concepts with black faces more readily than white ones.
Conflicted Racial Perception in the Dual Processor
In conducting the IAT, Banaji and Greenwald discovered something similar to the Müller-Lyer Illusion, in that there is a conflict between System 1 and System 2 in racial perception. But there is also a striking difference between the Müller-Lyer Illusion and the IAT. In the Müller-Lyer Illusion, there is a pervasive, explicit, conscious variance
between how the lines appear intuitively and immediately to the perceiver and the perceiver’s measured, deliberative judgment. In other words, System 1 and System 2 are explicitly in conflict with one another so that the perceiver is aware of this inner conflict. The perceiver can experience the cognitive dissonance of simultaneously seeing the line in two incompatible ways.“The reason these vices are so stubborn is that they hide in plain sight.”
However, in the case of System 1 and System 2 in racial perception, the variance—even if pervasive—goes underground and becomes implicit. In other words, typical participants would self-report that they do not
have any racial biases or racialized beliefs. But their test results reveal unconscious, automatic racialized preferences that invisibly guide their social cognition and behavior. Part of the explanation is that because of the damaging history of racial categories and their historical meanings, the very use of these terms—though now explicitly unhooked from ranking and branding purposes—nevertheless drag some of that baggage into present collective consciousness.
Implicit Racial Bias
So while in the Müller-Lyer Illusion there is a pervasive, explicit, conscious variance
between System 1 and System 2, there is a pervasive, implicit, unconscious variance
between System 1 and System 2 in social cognition about racial categorization. This implicit, unconscious variance makes it possible for a person both to possess racialized biases while also (sincerely) disavowing them. Such persons are not lying but rather are dissociated on this issue. They therefore are not even at the level of cognitive dissonance, but they’re also not necessarily in willful denial, because the conflict is implicit, below the level of self-awareness. This is why Banaji and Greenwald call this implicit
social cognition. This term and the literature surrounding the IAT have accumulated into a vast academic and practical discussion about how racial social cognition functions across the strata of our social and political world.
Implicit Social Cognition and Cognitive Vices
This implicit social cognition also illustrates perhaps one of the most unnerving and challenging aspects of cognitive vice. The reason these vices are so stubborn is that they hide in plain sight. Even when System 2 is deployed in self-critical analysis, cognitive vices are camouflaged even from the very mind that seeks to eliminate them. This is true for a whole range of cognitive vices, not just ones pertaining to racialized stereotypes and biases. It’s like that famous quotation of Charles Baudelaire: “The finest trick of the devil is to persuade you that he does not exist.” That’s how cognitive vices flourish.