A Prejudice Habit-Breaking Intervention for Reducing Implicit Racial Bias

Treating prejudice like a habit that can be broken leads to long-term reductions in implicit racial bias

Reviewed by Tyrone Fleurizard


“Implicit bias is like the smog that hangs over a community,” ​Hidden Brain​ podcast host Shankar Vedantam said on an episode about implicit racial bias. “It becomes the air people breathe.” Indeed, like air, implicit racial bias and discrimination is everywhere, and has been linked to poorer health and success outcomes for historically marginalized groups. To mitigate these effects, social scientists have developed and empirically tested interventions to reduce bias. Such efforts have led to the development of bias-reduction strategies such as taking the perspective of out-group members and imagining counter-stereotypes, but too often the results are short-lived. The effects of some bias-reduction interventions only last up to 24 hours, and the participants of these studies are only using the strategies because the experimenters are asking them to. Might there be a way to reduce bias that engages intentional effort in service of long-term change?

Researchers Patricia Devine, Patrick Forscher, Anthony Austin, and William Cox​ ​have proven so. They developed an intervention whose underlying assumption is that implicit bias is like a habit that can be broken through a combination of self-awareness, concern about the harmful effects of bias and intentional use of strategies to reduce them. They found that participants of this intervention had reductions in implicit bias up to eight weeks after the intervention, increased self-awareness of bias and concerns about the impact of bias on others. These results make the researchers hopeful that reducing bias for positive outcomes is possible.

Patricia Devine is the Kenneth and Mamie Clark Professor of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and director of the Prejudice and Intergroup Relations Lab. Her research focuses on prejudice and intergroup relationships. Patrick Forscher is a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Co-Regulation (CORE) Lab, a group focused on the study co-regulation in romantic relationships and social thermoregulation. Anthony Austin, MPP, is a Health Research Analyst at Mathematica Policy Research. William Cox is a Research Scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Principle Investigator of the Stereotyping and Bias Research (SABR) Lab, where he studies stereotypes and bias-reduction.

Methods and Findings

The researchers recruited 91 non-Black students to participate in the study and randomly assigned them to either the intervention group or the control group. All participants were assessed on their racial attitudes, sources of motivation to respond without prejudice, awareness of their own bias, and concerns about the effects of discrimination. They were also asked to complete the Race ​Implicit Association Test​ (IAT), which measures peoples implicitly held attitudes and beliefs regarding race. After receiving feedback on their results, the control group was asked to leave, while participants in the intervention group remained and watched a 45-minute interactive slideshow presentation that included an education and training section.

The education section introduced participants to the idea that prejudice was a habit that could be broken, the process of developing implicit bias, and its harmful effects. The training section taught participants strategies to reduce implicit racial bias such as replacing stereotypical responses with non-stereotypical ones and learning about out-group members, asked them to come up with scenarios they might implement such strategies, and were told that implementing such strategies would require practice and effort on their part to break the habit cycle. Following the intervention, participants in both groups had follow up meetings two, four, six, and eight weeks after the experiment.

The researchers found:

●  People who participated in the intervention had lower implicit bias scores than peoplein the control group, which persisted eight weeks after the intervention concluded;

●  While the intervention did not effect participants’ racial attitudes or motivations torespond without prejudice, it did increase participants’ concern about discrimination insociety and awareness of their own biases;

●  Participants self-reported likelihood to use learned strategies was linked to lowerimplicit racial bias scores eight weeks later;

●  Thinking that strategies are effective and identifying opportunities to implement themwas not enough to reduce bias, instead participants needed to also believe they would actually use them.


The prejudice habit-breaking intervention produced the first evidence that a randomized control intervention could produce long-term reductions in implicit bias. The intervention gave people concrete strategies to counteract bias while making them more aware of their biases and increasing their concern for discrimination. These two ingredients are important to clear the implicit bias in the air.


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