Racial Bias as a Trait

Prejudice is an important topic in psychology that can be examined from various perspectives. Nevertheless, prejudice research is typically studied by social psychologists. As a result, research has focused on social cognitive processes that are activated in response to racial stimuli (e.g., pictures of African Americans) and experimental manipulations of the situation (e.g., race of experimenter). Other research has focused on cognitive processes that can lead to the formation of racial bias (e.g., the minimal group paradigm). Sometimes this work has been based on a model of prejudice that assumes racial bias is a common attribute of all people (Devine, 1989) and that individuals only differ in their willingness or ability to act on their racial biases.

An alternative view is that racial biases vary across individuals and are shaped by experiences with out-group members. The most prominent theory is contact theory, which postulates that contact with out-group members reduces racial bias. In social psychology, individual differences in racial biases are typically called attitudes, where attitudes are broad dispositions to respond to a class of attitude objects in a consistent manner. For example, individuals with positive attitudes towards African Americans are more likely to have positive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in interactions with African Americans.

The notion of attitudes as general dispositions shows that attitudes play the same role in social psychology that traits play in personality psychology. For example, extraversion is a general disposition to have more positive thoughts, feelings, and to engage more in social interactions. One important research question in personality psychology are the causes of variation in personality. Why are some people more extraverted than others? A related question is how stable personality traits are. If the causes of extraversion are environmental factors, extraversion should change when the environment changes. If the causes of extraversion are within the person (e.g., early childhood experiences, genetic differences), extraversion should be stable. Thus, the stability of personality traits over time is an empirical question that can only be answered in longitudinal studies that measure personality traits repeatedly. A meta-analysis shows that the Big Five personality traits are highly stable over time (Anusic & Schimmack, 2016).

In comparison, the stability of attitudes has received relatively little attention in social psychology because stable individual differences are often neglected in social cognitive models of attitudes. This is unfortunate because the origins of racial bias are important to the understanding of racial bias and to design interventions that help individuals to reduce their racial biases.

How stable are racial biases?

The lack of data has not stopped social psychologists from speculating about the stability of racial biases. “It’s not as malleable as mood and not as reliable as a personality trait. It’s in between the two–a blend of both a trait and a state characteristic” (Nosek in Azar, 2008). In 2019, Nosek was less certain about the stability of racial biases. “One is does that mean we have have some degree of trait variance because there is some stability over time and what is the rest? Is the rest error or is it state variance in some way, right. Some variation that is meaningful variation that is sensitive to the context of measurement. Surely it is some of both, but we don’t know how much” (The Psychology Podcast, 2019).

Other social psychologists have made stronger claims about the stability of racial bias. Payne argued that racial bias is a state because implicit bias measures show higher internal consistency than retest correlations (Payne, 2017). However, the comparison of internal consistency and retest correlations is problematic because situational factors may simply produce situation-specific measurement errors rather than reflecting real changes in the underlying trait; a problem that is well recognized in personality psychology. To examine this question more thoroughly, it is necessary to obtain multiple retests and decompose the variances into trait, state, and error variances (Anusic & Schimmack, 2016). Even this approach cannot distinguish between state variance and systematic measurement error, which requires multi-method data (Schimmack, 2019).

A Longitudinal Multi-Method Study of Racial Bias

A recent article reported the results of an impressive longitudinal study of racial bias with over 3,000 medical students who completed measures of racial bias and inter-group contact three times over a period of six year (first year of medical school, fourth year of medical school, 2nd year of residency) (Onyeador et al., 2019). I used the openly shared data to fit a multi-method state-trait-error model to the data (https://osf.io/78cqx/).

The model integrates several theoretical assumptions that are consistent with previous research (Schimmack, 2019). First, the model assumes that explicit ratings of racial bias (feeling thermometer) and implicit measures of racial bias (Implicit Association Test) are complementary measures of individual differences in racial bias. Second, the model assumes that one source of variance in racial bias is a stable trait. Third, the model assumes that racial bias differs across racial groups, in that Black individuals have more favorable attitudes towards Black people than members from other groups. Fourth, the model assumes that contact is negatively correlated with racial bias without making a strong causal assumption about the direction of this relationship. The model also assumes that Black individuals have more contact with Black individuals and that contact partially explains why Black individuals have less racial biases.

The new hypotheses that could be explored with these data concerned the presence of state variance in racial bias. First, state variance should produce correlations between the occasion specific variances of the two methods. That is, after statistically removing trait variance, residual state variance in feeling thermometer scores should be correlated with residual variances in IAT scores. For example, as medical students interact more with Black staff and patients in residency, their racial biases could change and this would produce changes in explicit ratings and in IAT scores. Second, state variance is expected to be somewhat stable over shorter time intervals because environments tend to be stable over shorter time intervals.

The model in Figure 1 met standard criteria of model fit, CFI = .997, RMSEA = .016.

Describing the model from left to right, race (0 = Black, 1 = White) has the expected relationship with quantity of contact (quant1) in year 1 (reflecting everyday interactions with Black individuals) and with the racial bias (att) factor. In addition, more contact is related to less pro-White bias (-.28). The attitude factor is a stronger predictor of the explicit trait factor (.78; ft; White feeling-thermometer – Black feeling-thermometer) than on the implicit trait factor (.60, iat). The influence of the explicit trait factor on measures on the three occasions (.58-.63) suggests that about one-third of the variance in these measures is trait variance. The same is true for individual IATs (.59-.62). The effect of the attitude factor on individual IATs (.60 * .60 = .36; .36^2 = .13 suggests that less than 20% of the variance in an individual IAT reflects racial bias. This estimate is consistent with the results from multi-method studies (Schimmack, 2019). However, these results suggests that the amount of valid trait variance can increase up to 36%, by aggregating scores of several IATs. In sum, these results provide first evidence that racial bias is stable over a period of six years and that both explicit ratings and implicit ratings capture trait variance in racial bias.

Turning to the bottom part of the model, there is weak evidence to suggest that residual variances (that are not trait variance) in explicit and implicit ratings are correlated. Although the correlation of r = .06 at time 1 is statistically significant, the correlations at time 2 (r = .03) and time 3 (r = .00) are not. This finding suggests that most of the residual variance is method specific measurement error rather than state-variance in racial bias. There is some evidence that the explicit ratings capture more than occasion-specific measurement error because state variance at time 1 predicts state variance at time 2 (r = .25) and from time 2 to time 3 (r = .20). This is not the case for the IAT scores. Finally, contact with Black medical staff at time 2 is a weak, but significant predictor of explicit measures of racial bias at time 2 and time 3, but it does not predict IAT scores at time 2 and 3. These findings do not support the hypothesis that changes in racial bias measures reflect real changes in racial biases.

The results are consistent with the only other multi-method longitudinal study of racial bias that covered only a brief period of three months. In this study, even implicit measures showed no convergent validity for the state (non-trait) variance on the same occasion (Cunningham, Preacher, & Banaji, 1995).


Examining predictors of individual differences in racial bias is important to understand the origins of racial biases and to develop interventions that help individuals to reduce their racial biases. Examining the stability of racial bias in longitudinal studies shows that these biases are stable dispositions and there is little evidence that they change with changing life-experiences. One explanation is that only close contact may be able to shift attitudes and that few people have close relationships with outgroup members. Thus stable environments may contribute to stability in racial bias.

Given the trait-like nature of racial bias, interventions that target attitudes and general dispositions may be relatively ineffective, as Onyeador et al.’s (2019) article suggested. Thus, it may be more effective to target and assess actual behaviors in diversity training. Expecting diversity training to change general dispositions may be misguided and lead to false conclusions about the effectiveness of diversity training programs.

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