Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2018-19/Truth in Subconscious Racism

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‘Truth’ is defined as statements in accordance with factual reality, or statements labelled as ‘true’ through popular consensus. The debate surrounding ‘truth’ in racial attitudes elicits interdisciplinary conflict due to varying definitions of 'truth'.

The Implicit Association Test measures automatic associations and thus our subconscious bias. Participants sort a concept with either a positive or negative word (e.g. African-American and pleasant) quickly and accurately [1]. If the stimuli are strongly linked in their mind, this becomes an easier task and they score higher. The results enable us to consider the extent to which these attitudes may indicate our inherent beliefs.

This chapter addresses whether our subconscious reflects our racist beliefs.

Disciplinary Approaches[edit]

Behavioural Psychology[edit]

Implicit cognition presents our lack of complete conscious control in social perception and judgement, subsequently allowing our actions to diverge from explicit belief [2]. Arguably, the IAT reflects modal beliefs and individual variation is merely the extent to which one perceives culturally defined principles [3]. However, meta-analytic studies suggest the predictive ability of the IAT [4] with behaviour such as non-deliberate discrimination. Within fictitious interview experiments, non-verbal discomfort and less time spoken to black applicants was observed more frequently in white students with higher IAT scores [5]. Following this study, interviewers controlled these behaviours towards white applicants, causing them to interact more uncomfortably and decrease their performance standard [5]. After removing legitimate reasons, this suggests applicant rejections may be based on subconscious racial bias [6]; formulating a conceivable explanation for the systematically disadvantageous outcomes for African-Americans in healthcare, education, criminal justice and employment [7].

Regarding healthcare, the Unequal Treatment report discovered multiple racial disparities [8] revealing subconscious racial bias as a potential cause, indicative of a deeper truth into one's racial beliefs. For example, a correlation was found between higher pro-white bias in Paediatricians and a decreased likelihood to prescribe post-operative narcotics to black children [9]. These studies conclude that the majority of US health care providers display implicit pro-white bias [10] and black patients express the most negative ratings for interaction friendliness with physicians [11]. Incorporating the IAT within medical training and encouraging interracial relations has reflected positively on the treatment of African-American patients [12].


The 'truth' derived from the IAT contrasts with more subjective and relative sociological truths, which are formed with respect to an environment. Subconscious beliefs do not necessarily reflect our values as they are inherently imprinted with racial bias from societal norms. Therefore, whilst our subconscious is a result of social constructs, conscious actions can be independent from these.

Sociologist Herbert Blumer argued within symbolic interactionist theory that race prejudice exists from a “sense of group position” [13] where racial groups are “a historical product” [14] and “a result of experience” [13]. Thereby, racial groups would not arise without the experience of racial differences. Blumer thus argued that our racism was intrinsically affected by history, however our consciousness is hardly influenced by these biases, which therefore have no effect on our actions [15]. These racial groups can be the application of Émile Durkheim’s 'collective consciousness', where individuals are bound to said groups by embedded social constructs, of which the individual is rarely conscious [16].

Sociology further refutes the IAT's 'truth' due to its focus on reaction speed. Sociological reflexivity allows the reflection on actions, proven by a study on “Reflexive Intergroup Bias” where individuals either penalised those of their own group (e.g. race) or an opposing group [17]. Biased penalties against opposing groups came with fast responses, whilst with time for reflection, or “rational deliberation” [18], similar penalties were granted. This action thus absolves the 'truth' of the subconscious by allowing conscious values to drive one’s conduct.


Neuroscientific study on subconscious bias focuses on the amygdala, a subcortical structure which uses cognitive biases to process stimuli instantaneously [19]. The connection between high levels of measured amygdala activity and individuals who score high on the IAT was first reported by Phelps who found a ‘significant correlation’ [20], thus concluding that high IAT scores are reflective of ‘subconscious racism’.

However, this conclusion has been criticized within neuroscience. Firstly, high amygdala activity doesn't only occur as proof that subconscious biases are being actively referred to because the amygdala’s subdivisions and connectivity also affects its activity levels. However, these features have not been acknowledged ‘in any depth' [21] by current research, leaving the definite cause of amygdala activity unclear and thus illegitimizing conclusions based upon this activity.  Additionally, alternative neuroscientific research demonstrates that subconscious biases may be innate, as in the case of the ‘inside-outside bias' [21] ; this occurs as a product of evolution when a person quickly categorizes strangers as being 'inside' or 'outside' their own group, based on obvious differences rather than biases caused by learned racial prejudice which could be described as subconscious ‘racism’. Equating the existence of subconscious bias to the existence of subconscious racism is a subjective truth which relies upon one's own understanding of what 'racism' really means; this is not befitting with neuroscience's view of truth as objective and the practice of only asserting that something is 'true' if it can be scientifically measured eg. by an brain MRI scan.

Social Psychology[edit]

Despite criticisms of the IAT by neuroscientists, social psychologists argue for the IAT’s validity in determining truth regarding subconscious racial beliefs as it provides a more genuine response than other research methods can.

An alternative to collecting data on people's beliefs is explicit self-reported data. By asking participants directly about their values, researchers obtain data on people's conscious views, unlike the IAT which records immediate responses, reflecting the subconscious. While one might predict a significant difference in results from the IAT and explicit self-report measures, research indicates there is in fact a high correlation in data, which tends to be similar in both types of study [22].

A common critique of self-report measures is that they introduce distortions in the data since participants can deliberately skew their answers. Especially when the IAT is on socially sensitive topics such as race, impression management becomes relevant. People tend to control their answers to fit within the frame of what they find socially acceptable. As a result, self-report data is far more subjective and limited in predictive validity [23]. Social psychologists would hesitate to draw conclusions from such data, since they find the results too subjective to establish truth. Therefore, for research on subconscious racism, the IAT is a superior method as it minimizes the bias introduced in self-report measures on socially sensitive topics. Thus, social psychologists would argue the IAT provides a more solid indication of truth regarding subconscious racism than other data collection methods.


A monodisciplinary approach to studying subconscious racism ultimately leads to the loss of a broader understanding of the issue as it is approached in other fields. This allows each discipline to arrive at its own conclusive but incomplete and contradicting truth as demonstrated by the disciplinary studies described. As such, the need for future study of subconscious racism to be interdisciplinary is evident, especially given the nature of subconscious racism as fundamentally drawing upon both scientific theory of the subconscious and the societal, subjective concept of ‘race’.


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