To what extent are people responsible for their implicit attitudes?

Implicit attitudes are delineated as ‘introspectively unidentified (or inaccurately identified) traces of past experience that mediate favourable or unfavourable feeling, thought, or action toward a social object’[1]. This definition underlines that implicit attitudes occur irrespective of one’s awareness. For instance, say Fred has grown in an environment in which he has frequently been introduced to homophobic views. Although Fred may consciously be holding highly positive views of gay people, he may also be implicitly possessing an association between homosexuality and badness. Because Fred’s implicit attitude is irrespective of his self-report, it can be indirectly measured on the basis of his performance on the Implicit Association Test[2], in which he would be asked to categorise words and images that share a response key. The results might indicate that Fred is faster in categorising the words ‘gay’ and ‘terrible’ into the same group than putting the words ‘gay’ and ‘fantastic’ in the same pile. Is Fred aware of his implicit attitudes? If he is aware, is he able to control them? If he is aware and has control, Is he morally responsible for his implicit attitudes?

At first glance, the question might appear as as highly difficult one to answer because, whereas the notion of implicit attitudes emerges as a psychological phenomenon, moral responsibility comes across as more of a philosophical concern. However, it is argued that there is a weighty relationship between the two. This is due to the empirical evidence, which indicates that implicit attitudes generate various kinds of invidious behaviour (implicit bias).[3] The debates amongst psychologists regarding the characteristics of implicit attitudes remain unresolved. Although many psychologists describe them as unconscious, automatic and unintentional in the psychological literature, there are still contrasting theories concerning their nature. In its simplest form, this distinction can firstly be seen as whether or not implicit attitudes are similar to ordinary psychological attitudes such as beliefs and desires. For the sake of this essay, however, I shall not stress on the metaphysical debate over their nature. My position towards this matter will be along the same lines as Neil Levy’s incorporative stance, in which he defines implicit attitudes as being ‘somewhat sensitive to evidence and to the semantic content of other attitudes but not sensitive enough to qualify as beliefs’[4]. I will concentrate on the ethics of implicit attitudes, and will argue that people can be considered as responsible for their implicit bias. I will discuss the matters of awareness and controllability

There is empirical evidence that implicit attitudes are thought to be the cause of ‘subtle and rationalisable’[5] forms of discriminatory behaviours, prejudices and judgements. A pertinent example of this kind of behaviour is presented in a study conducted by John F. Dovidio’ and Samuel L. Gaertner, in which they examined aversive racism in the form of expressed racial prejudice and its influence on choosing white and black people for employment. The study indicated that in certain cases, participants who consciously subscribe to egalitarian values evaluated candidates of the same CV differently, in relation to their racial background.[6] In a similar study conducted by Jack Glaser and Eric D. Knowles, participants were asked to complete ‘The Shooter Task’, which aims to assess their propensity to shoot black or white people in a computer simulation. The result of the study indicated that participants were more inclined to shoot black targets and less likely to shoot the whites.[7] These experiments support the existence of implicit biases, which can be assessed by using indirect measures. However, the widespread classification of implicit attitudes denotes that they are unconscious mental states that Tamar S. Gendler defines as ‘associative, automatic and arrational’[8]. It might thus lead to the conclusion that people cannot be responsible for their implicit attitudes, simply because they are unaffected by what people explicitly consider to be moral or unjust. In line with this view, Jennifer Saul refers to gender bias and argues that ‘a person should not be blamed for an implicit bias that they are completely unaware of, which results solely from the fact that they live in a sexist culture.’[9] Yet, it is also possible to argue that the extent to which implicit attitudes are unconscious needs more explanation, and is thus questionable with regards to one’s moral responsibilities.

For instance, Bertram Gawronski and his colleagues present a review of the commonly argued feature of implicit attitudes, namely unconsciousness. They argue that the assumption that implicit attitudes are unconscious cannot be assumed as simply as it seems. They assert that unconsciousness should be scrutinised in terms of three different aspects of awareness; being the source, the content and the impact.[10] The source awareness refers to people’s awareness of the roots of their implicit attitudes. According to their review, a number of different empirical evidence has shown that both implicit and explicit attitudes may or may not lack source awareness, which means that it is not a distinguishing feature of implicit attitudes. The lack of content awareness is described as the situation in which an agent is unaware of the existence of his/her implicit attitude per se. Several studies conducted by Gawronski et al. demonstrate that people can, indeed often have conscious awareness of their indirectly measured attitudes, even though they might not explicitly report it. Lastly, Gawronski et al. elucidates that the lack of impact awareness might occur when implicit attitudes may have unconscious influence upon one’s certain behaviours and thoughts without one’s realisation. Drawing on all these findings, the review concludes that although there is some evidence that endorses the connection between unconsciousness and implicit attitudes, the evidence remains ‘equivocal’ because the three aspects of awareness receive uneven support.[11] On the basis of Gawronski et al.’s conclusion, I argue that the evidence for sheer unconsciousness is not adequate to the extent that it is exculpatory in terms of moral responsibilities, and people can therefore be responsible for their indirectly measured attitudes as well as their impact upon other behaviours.

Another aspect of the subject matter is the notion of control. Similar to continuing debates with respect to the level of awareness, there is contrasting evidence regarding the degree to which implicit attitudes are controllable. On one hand, it is argued that implicit attitudes might counter-react against conscious attempts to extinguish them. Concerning this matter, Alice Follenfant and François Ric conducted two experiments, which resulted in that ‘trying to suppress a stereotype could paradoxically lead suppressors to behave in line with the content of the suppressed stereotype, and even more than if no suppression had been undertaken.’[12] In light of this study, one might argue that an attempt to control implicit bias would presumably lead to a worse situation. Does this mean that we should not take action for our discriminatory behaviours? The question is whether or not people must rely on the assumption that implicit attitudes reduce their ability to behave in accordance with their conscious beliefs. If they must, it could be argued that people should not have a moral responsibility for implicit bias, since it is uncontrollable. If this is not the case, however, if there are certain ways of exerting control on those attitudes, then people can be responsible for not avoiding discriminatory behaviours caused by implicit bias. I argue that the former view seems to provide an oversimplified, if not false account regarding the issue whereas the latter view is more promising.

The growing research on this issue suggests that there might be certain ways to control or even alter one’s implicit attitudes. It is necessary to bear in mind that regarding these studies, the level of plausibility and effectiveness remains uncertain in the philosophical literature. However, a study conducted by Jules Holroyd and Daniel Kelly, which is based on Andy Clark’s concept of ‘ecological control’[13], suggests that it is possible for agents to exert some kind of control over their implicit attitudes. This kind of control is described in Clarke’s words as ‘top-level control that does not micro-manage every detail, but rather encourages substantial devolvement of power and responsibility’[14]. Following this description, the study presents alternative ways in which ecological control can be exercised in order to influence one’s cognitive processes. One of them is the conscious manipulation of one’s environments. For example, a man who has implicitly biased views on gender equality might choose to co-work with his female colleagues, and thus aim to mitigate the effect of his prejudices. A similar outcome could be achieved by constant rehearsal of certain thoughts, such as ‘I enjoy collaborating with female colleagues’. Holroyd and Kelly lastly suggests that a person’s active engagement with certain principles also leads to ecological control, even though there is no expressed intention to explicitly promote those principles.[15] Drawing on these studies, it can be said that people might, or at least should have moral responsibilities to control their implicit biases. Even though the cases in which implicit bias occurs are various, and thus subject to deeper scrutiny, I argue that the complete rejection of moral responsibility with regards to implicit attitudes and their influence on behaviour is false.

I have analysed the important aspects of the connection between implicit attitudes and moral responsibility. I have firstly considered the extent of awareness as well as different features of awareness in terms of one’s implicit attitudes and I have presented some evidence, which demonstrates that people might be aware of their implicit attitudes to a certain degree. I looked at the notion of controllability and how it affects the implicit/moral dilemma. I have asserted that there are developing studies and certain evidence, which indicate that agents may have some sort of control over their implicit attitudes, such as Clarke’s ecological control. This is significant because I would argue that, although being in possession of implicit attitudes is not necessarily a concern on a personal level, the expression of those attitudes by means of invidious behaviours causes tremendous harm on a social level. In such real-life cases, for instance, implicit attitudes about someone’s skin colour might cause a police officer to shoot this person. Implicit bias should not simply be undermined because, even though people might not have an instant personal level control over their implicit attitudes; they might acquire other forms of control, which may have a changing or controlling impact upon those attitudes in long-term.

[1] Greenwald, A. G., & Banaji, M. R. (1995). ‘Implicit social cognition: Attitudes, self-esteem, and stereotypes’. Psychological Review, 102 (1), p.8.

[2] Greenwald, A. G., McGhee, D. E., & Schwartz, J. K. L. (1998). ‘Measuring individual differences in implicit cognition: The Implicit Association Test’. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1464–1480.

[3] Brownstein, M. (2015). ‘Attributionism and Moral Responsibility for Implicit Bias’. Review of Philosophy of Psychology, 7 (4), p. 765–786.

[4] Levy, N. (2014). ‘Neither fish nor fowl: Implicit attitudes as patchy endorsements’. Noûs. p.2.

[5] Dovidio J.F., Gaertner S.L. (2000). ‘Aversive Racism and Selection Decisions: 1989 and 1999.’ Psychological Science, 11, p. 319.

[6] Dovidio J.F., Gaertner S.L. (2000). Aversive Racism and Selection Decisions: 1989 and 1999. Psychological Science, 11, p. 319.

[7] J. Glaser, E.D. ‘Knowles Implicit motivation to control prejudice’. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44 (2008), p. 164–172.

[8] Gendler, T.S. (2008). Alief in action (and reaction). Mind and Language, 23 (5), p. 557.

[9] Saul, J. (2013) ‘Unconscious Influences and Women in Philosophy’. Women in Philosophy: What Needs to Change? F. Jenkins & K. Hutchison (eds.), Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 55.

[10] Gawronski, B., W. Hofmann, & C. Wilbur. (2006). ‘Are implicit attitudes unconscious?’, Consciousness and Cognition, 15: 485–499.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Follenfant, A and Ric, F. (2010). ‘Behavioural rebound following stereotype suppression’. European Journal of Social Psychology. 40 (5), p. 780.

[13] Holroyd, J. Kelly, D. (2014). Implicit Bias, Character and Control.’ In J. Webber and A. Masala (eds.) From Personality to Virtue, Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 8.

[14] Ibid. p. 9.

[15] The study refer to the notion of ‘priming of egalitarian goals’ proposed by Gordon Moskowitz and Peizhong Li in ‘Egalitarian Goals Trigger Stereotype Inhibition: A Proactive Form of Stereotype Control’. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (2011), 47:1, p. 107.




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Zeynep Kesici

Zeynep Kesici

Dog Lover. Avid reader. Passionate writer. Researcher on Social Policy. Interested in society and nature.

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