The most racist or sexist people underestimate their own prejudice

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The more racist or sexist a person is, the more likely they are to underestimate their own prejudice, new research from Goldsmiths, University of London has shown.

The study suggests that diversity training sessions are unlikely to be effective if they do not involve any actual training in techniques to reduce bias, but instead simply focus on delivering information about bias

The study, published in Personality and Individual Differences, focused on egalitarianism (fairness or equality) as a skill in itself and compared self-reported and external measures of egalitarianism.

Goldsmiths’ Dr Keon West and Dr Asia Eaton from Florida International University found that on average people overestimated their egalitarianism by 25% when it came to racism and by 19% when it came to sexism.

Among the least egalitarian participants the overestimation of egalitarianism was much larger for both racism and sexism.

The study also concluded that diversity training centred on simply delivering information about bias did nothing to reduce this ‘perception gap’, suggesting that without training in recognising and reducing bias, as well as feedback on one’s own specific levels of bias, interventions were unlikely to be effective.

The first study compared participants’ self-perceptions of their racism to external measures. 148 people (79% white) were recruited through a voluntary racism-related diversity training programme in London.

Before the training, participants reported what they believed their level of racial egalitarianism was compared to other people on the programme, and to people in the UK generally. Then, their actual levels of implicit and explicit racial impartiality were measured. Participants were asked to rate on a scale how they feel toward black people, and completed a black vs white implicit associations test.

They then took part in a two-hour diversity training programme before reporting their self-perceptions of their own racism for a second time.   

The second study, with 159 people (34 men, 125 women), was similar to the first, except that it focused on self-perceived and externally measured sexism, rather than racism.

In both studies, participants who were the least egalitarian also most strongly overestimated how egalitarian they were compared to other people. In neither study did the two-hour diversity training session alter this overestimation.

Dr West and Dr Eaton argue that highly prejudiced individuals deny their level of bias in part because they lack the meta-cognitive skills - higher order thinking skills, or being aware of one’s awareness - to recognise their own lack of egalitarianism.

This finding is in line with the popular idea of incompetence and overconfidence shaped by psychologists Kruger and Dunning in the late 1990s. It supports the argument that meta-cognitive deficits lead not only to incompetence but also an inability to recognise that incompetence.

Dr West, Associate Professor in Social Psychology at Goldsmiths, said: “This research provides important evidence that being egalitarian may not simply be a matter of choice or motivation, but also a matter of skill or ability.

“Most diversity training does not involve any actual training in techniques to reduce bias, but rather focuses on delivery of information about bias. That is a crucial difference. People might get feedback on their level of bias but that’s not the same thing as getting feedback on how your levels compare to other people, or on how much you have overestimated your own level of egalitarianism. Without this important element of training, participants who are genuinely unaware of their shortcomings will probably remain that way.”

Prejudiced and unaware of it: Evidence for the Dunning-Kruger model in the domains of racism and sexism by Keon West and Asia Eaton was published in Personality and Individual Differences on Tuesday 9 April 2019.