Research on Stereotypes: The Consumer Subconscious at its Best

Gregg Miller

Researchers in the field of social psychology have long been interested in one of the most significant malaises of society in developed countries: stereotyping. One study in particular stands out as a foundational breakthrough in showing how subconscious priming (presenting information to people in a manner that is not perceived consciously) can illuminate the true strength of stereotypes in the every-day individuals.

The researchers, perhaps a bit sadistically, developed a computer task designed to be as tedious and boring as possible. Periodically throughout this lengthy experiment the participants were shown pictures of young black or white men depending on the experimental condition. The span of time during which each of these pictures appeared on the computer was so brief (13 to 26 ms) that it was impossible for the participants to have any idea that there had been any pictures whatsoever. After over a hundred of these trials, the experimenters intentionally caused the computer program to crash and hunkered down behind their one-way-glass to watch how people reacted. Both the experimenters and neutral third parties rated the behavior of the participants who had been primed with black faces as being over 25% more hostile than the reactions of the people who had been shown white faces! Hostility was chosen here as the target behavioral variable because of its relevance in stereotypes against African Americans and its observance suggests that other aspects of the stereotype were also activated.

These findings are flat-out astonishing. The forty-one participants in the study were not “racists” as one might label a blatantly prejudiced person; they were a random sample, essentially representing the average American. If you confronted these forty-one people seated in a room, or any group at all, and asked anyone who considered themselves guilty of racial bias and stereotyping to please raise their hands, I bet you’d be hard pressed to elicit a level of response even close to that observed in the experiment. People’s mental associations between race and hostile reactions (and presumably a number of other connections that we might find unpalatable were we able to see them in ourselves) are strong enough that they can be activated without us even being aware of it. These are not associations that one consciously considers to be part and parcel to one’s identity, yet they are there and are not easily escapable: the definition of an Ugly Truth. The implications for our day-to-day living are scary. We encounter subconscious stimuli related to any number of social constructs on a given day. We have no control over whether and where we encounter them or their effects on us.

In today’s society we like to think that we’ve come a long way from our national past of horrible discrimination. Of course, explicitly speaking, we have – slavery has been abolished, segregation is a concept so incomprehensible as to be appalling to many Americans today, and social justice programs and legislation continue to push for equal rights in all spheres of society. But perhaps we haven’t come as far as we like to think. Many people today point to the fact that racism and prejudice is still with us and worse than ever in a perversely invisible nature. Clearly it’s something we’re still struggling with as a culture and that populations everywhere around the world struggle with. This isn’t just racism, it’s stereotyping. Same-race ethnic groups struggling in tribal/clan conflict like the Hutu/Tutsi binary are equally guilty of this fundamental human trait.

The research on stereotyping underscores a fundamental human truth about the times we’re living in: the majority of our decisions are made subconsciously, not consciously. Beyond our conscious awareness – not within it. As market researchers we need to be cognizant of this as we design our studies and not rely on self-reported measures to understand how people think about brands. Until the day when everyone practices yoga and lives in a constant state of awareness, we need to access the consumer mind on the level on which it operates most effectively: the subconscious level. What we find there won’t always be pretty, but what’s going on beneath the surface is just as much a part of who we are and how we make our choices as the personality we project and want to be.

Author’s note: The purpose of this blog post isn’t to scold humanity, nor to deplore our inevitable condition of discrimination from a liberal humanist seat but rather to define the reality of stereotyping. These associations between groups of people and emotive responses can be subconsciously activated because there exists inside each and every one of us a group of expectations concerning people with different traits. We learn them through movies, parents, regional cultures, and every other human experience where we learn from our peers and surroundings. Thus it is very possible that racism and stereotyping simply cannot disappear overnight even if an individual wishes it with their entire being. With conscious thought and reflection we can counterbalance these automatic associations we have, but at the same time that doesn’t mean we can control our reactions. From a psychological perspective, the most effective way to combat stereotyping requires effort across years. People learn how to treat other people by watching how their environment works and engaging in the rules they observe. We need to actively be good models of the behavior we want to see in others and by example create a world for future generations that is better than our own.

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