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Is prejudice contagious? Examining how verbal and non-verbal messages influence the spread of bias

Allison L Skinner, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Previous research indicates that implicit biases predict non-verbal behavior and that exposure to racially biased non-verbal messages can increase implicit bias against racial outgroups. Taken together, these findings suggest that implicit bias can be viewed as contagious. In other words, observers of non-verbal bias develop implicit bias, which is behaviorally expressed as non-verbal bias, leading to the development of implicit bias among those who observe them. Moreover, accompanying verbal messages may moderate the effects of non-verbal messages on bias development. The literature on persuasion suggests that pairing explicit verbal messages with non-verbal messages has the potential to interfere with the development of bias. The overall aim of this research was to determine whether and under what conditions exposure to non-verbal bias results in implicit bias development. Hypothesis 1 was that exposure to non-verbal bias against a novel social target would result in implicit bias. Study 1 participants formed implicit biases, but not in the expected direction. However, they did demonstrate biased non-verbal behavior consistent with the observed non-verbal bias. In Studies 2 and 3 Hypothesis 1 was fully supported, providing evidence of social bias resulting from exposure to biased non-verbal behavior. Hypothesis 2 was that verbal messages that convey bias (positive or negative) would interfere with implicit bias development. Non-verbal messages were expected to have the strongest effect on implicit bias when paired with verbal messages, conveying equality among social targets. This hypothesis was fully supported in Studies 2 and 3, participants only showed evidence of non-verbal message consistent implicit bias in the neutral verbal message condition. The final goal of this research was to obtain neural evidence of bias development. Hypothesis 3 was that activation in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) would differentiate social targets. As predicted, participants showed less mPFC activation in response to targets of non-verbal bias relative to comparison targets, but only in the equality message condition. Results support the notion that implicit bias can spread via exposure to non-verbal bias, and that it is most contagious when paired with verbal equality messages. Implications of these findings and future directions for this research are discussed.

Subject Area

Neurosciences|Personality psychology

Recommended Citation

Skinner, Allison L, "Is prejudice contagious? Examining how verbal and non-verbal messages influence the spread of bias" (2015). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3689061.