Beyond the hate crime binary: Implicit bias in the Chapel Hill shooting

This post was co-written by Jen and guest blogger Cara, a city and regional planning student and social justice activist.

The recent triple murder of three Muslim Americans Yusor Abu-Salha, Deah Barakat, and Razan Abu-Salha in Chapel Hill on Tuesday night has rocked the Triangle, and its effects have reverberated across the globe. In addition to the devastating sadness and feelings of staggering unfairness precipitated by this horrific crime, the motive of the killer and whether the act was a hate crime is also being debated.

Craig Stephen Hicks, a 46 year old neighbor of Yusor, Deah, and Razan, has been charged with three counts of first degree murder after turning himself in to authorities. He and his lawyer claim that he killed them because of a parking dispute that escalated into violence, but a lot of people aren’t buying it. And neither are we.

Deah’s sister has asked that their murders be treated as a hate crime. Yusor and Razan’s brother believes the same. We also believe that this tragedy was motivated by anti-Muslim feelings and hate. This crime may not fit the legal definition of a hate crime, but that doesn’t preclude it from being one.

The debate over whether this fits the definition of a hate crime has to do with whether or not Hicks explicitly voiced his prejudice against Muslim people. His Facebook page has numerous posts where he mocks religion as an idea – Hicks is an adamant atheist – and a few where he calls out specific groups, such as a post calling Christians opposed to the building of a mosque near ground zero hypocritical, and another re-post that says if financial aid, mediation, and arms cannot bring peace to the Middle East, atheism can. But though he is a proud gun owner – he brags in one post about the weight of one of his loaded guns – he doesn’t seem to have expressed violent intentions toward Muslims specifically. The FBI is looking into it, but regardless of whether they find anything, the motivation seems to be clear.

Most people are more familiar with types of explicit prejudice or explicit bias. People who are explicitly prejudiced against Muslims, for example, know they are biased and may make statements to that effect or pointedly treat Muslim people differently than they would other people. This type of prejudice is also much less likely to be condoned in society. However, a deeper hidden kind of prejudice called implicit bias can guide people’s actions and thoughts even if they don’t consciously believe that they are biased.

Implicit bias is more likely what’s at play here. Implicit bias is an automatic stereotype or prejudice that someone maintains without necessarily being aware of it.1 Social psychologists have been studying implicit biases and their effects on behavior and society for years. These biases are so deeply ingrained and automatic that they often don’t reach the surface of consciousness, and yet may still guide our actions and behavior.2

Hicks’s wife claims that in her husband’s eyes “everyone is equal.” The fact that our implicit biases run so deep that we often aren’t even aware of them makes them particularly insidious, because here’s the thing: Hicks can genuinely believe that he didn’t target Deah, Yusor, and Razan because of their religion, but that doesn’t mean it’s true. Even if he wasn’t thinking about the fact that his victims were Muslims in the front of his mind, somewhere in his brain, the automatic part was looping a tape full of subtle but powerful beliefs and stereotypes that more likely than not allowed this disagreement to escalate dramatically.

Some evidence does exist to suggest that Hicks wasn’t simply a grumpy disgruntled neighbor but was actually targeting this family because of their religion. Namely, one of Razan’s best friends stated that Hicks didn’t bother Deah at all until his new wife and her sister came to live with him, two women who looked more traditionally Muslim with their hijabs than did Deah. Deah and Yusor’s relatives also offered previous incidents where Hicks threatened Deah and Yusor over their alleged noisiness while carrying his shotgun. Would he have approached these situations in the same way had Deah, Yusor, and Razan not been Muslim? Our guess is no.

There is no way to prove that implicit biases motivated or fed this crime, which feels incredibly frustrating. It also forebodes an increased misunderstanding if the families of the victims and the community at large see a hate crime here, but authorities cannot prove it. We believe that it is essential to get a discussion of not just explicit hate speech and discrimination but an understanding of implicit biases as well into the societal dialogue—implicit bias can also likely help to explain the Mike Brown shooting and other crimes across racial and cultural lines committed by people who swear they “see everyone equally.”

So, how does this directly affect you, and what can you do in your own life? Most implicit biases are on a smaller minor scale. They don’t result in a triple homicide, but that doesn’t mean they’re harmless. Every implicit bias affects people’s daily interactions. If you’ve ever taken a social psychology class, you’ve likely learned about the Implicit Association Test (or the IAT). The IAT is a free online test that allows anyone to measure their own implicit biases for all different groups ranging from race to age to sexual orientation. I encourage all of you to take it here. Note that the IAT has its own flaws—it is not to be used as a diagnostic tool. If the test finds that you have a preference for white people over black people, you are not destined to be a racist. Rather, such a result indicates several possible outcomes: 1) you are implicitly biased against black people, 2) you are aware of the bias against black people in the society where you’ve grown up, which is reflected in your result, or 3) some combination of the two.

Despite the imperfection of the IAT, its results can offer some insight into your psyche. This awareness is just the beginning. Start by taking the IAT, see what comes up. Then get comfortable with the idea that your very own brain may harbor implicit biases toward one or more groups. Especially if you are a person who says you “see everyone equally” or some such platitude, question the meanings behind your snap reactions or judgments of others. Try to notice patterns or be more deliberate in your interactions with others. Research exists to support the idea that people can change their automatic beliefs3, so your efforts will likely not be in vain.

In no way whatsoever is this discussion intended to relieve Hicks of any guilt or to place blame on any of his victims. Rather, it’s to suggest that the current definition of a hate crime requiring explicit prejudicial statements is outdated and too simplistic given what we know about implicit biases. Furthermore, understanding implicit biases can help us get past the racist vs. not-racist narrative and understand that people do what they do for much more complicated reasons than they themselves might even realize.


 

1 Devine (1989). Stereotypes and prejudice: Their automatic and controlled components. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 5-18.

2 Dovidio, Kawakami, & Gaertner (2002). Implicit and explicit prejudice and interracial interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 62-68.

3 Monteith, Ashburn-Nardo, Voils, & Czopp (2002). Putting the brakes on prejudice: On the development and operation of cues for control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 1029-1050.

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10 Days of Christmas…Consumerism: Day 10

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Image from PsyBlog

In our 10th and final installment, I want to wrap up our discussion by reviewing a topic near and dear to my heart: automaticity. Automaticity in the consumer environment refers to actions that occur without thought, and often refers to the process of priming, which is activating a concept without conscious awareness. Priming is quite common, and advertisers often depend on the automatic effects of priming in their advertising. For instance, product placements in TV shows or movies are meant to be subtle while activating a desire for the product, or creating associations between the product and something you enjoy (i.e. the show or movie). Such methods are extremely effective; Tom Cruise’s Ray-Bans in Risky Business sold 360,000 pairs of the unpopular sunglasses and The Italian Job put Mini Coopers on the map, boosting sales by 22%.

You may wonder how this is nonconscious, since you obviously notice these items are present in the movies. However, priming actually refers to a 3 part process, including awareness of the environmental factors (seeing the Ray-Bans in the movie), the process of activating the concept in the brain (the associations or desires created by seeing the Ray-Bans on Tom Cruise) and the outcome (actually buying the Ray-Bans, or changing your impression of the product).1 For the most part, we are not aware of every part of this process when we have been primed.1 But, as demonstrated by the sales statistics that result from product placement, priming is a highly effective marketing technique.

One way that brands can influence consumers outside of conscious awareness is by priming concepts related to the brand’s personality. For instance, a study by a group of Duke researchers revealed that priming participants with Apple logos made them significantly more creative on a subsequent task than participants who were primed with IBM logos.2 These brand associations are so strong it even works when you prime someone with a logo that is subliminal (it’s presented so fast it can’t be seen even if you are looking at it directly).3 However, in real life, most primes are supraliminal (you can see them, but you don’t realize their impact on your thoughts and behavior).3

Other people can also prime us, as we discussed in the Dasani priming study reviewed in our day 3 post. As in that study, behavioral mimicry can be the outcome of experiencing a prime. Behavioral mimicry occurs when one person behaves in the same way as another person without realizing it. This happens when you notice you are sitting the same way as another person, or you take on an accent when talking with someone from another place. Within the consumer realm, this can happen when you make the same choices as other consumers. One study found that watching another participant eat only goldfish crackers or animal crackers encouraged participants to eat the same snack and ignore the other option when both were provided.4

Automaticity is always at work in the consumer realm, but, for the most part, consumers are unaware of these influences and behaviors. Automatic processes like priming lead consumers to make decisions that are influenced by other consumers and marketing appeals. Many of the topics we have discussed during this series operate automatically, from forming impressions of products to being influenced by the behavior of early adopters. As always, an educated consumer is a savvy consumer!

Happy Holidays, y’all! Thanks for reading and see you in 2015!

Note: You may notice how often I cited Tanya Chartrand in this post. She is one of the foremost authorities on priming and automaticity, as well as a professor at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke. You can find more information on her research at her faculty page.

  1. Chartrand, T. L. (2005). The role of conscious awareness in consumer behavior. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 15(3), 203-210.
  2. Fitzsimons, G. M., Chartrand, T. L., & Fitzsimons, G. J. (2008). Automatic effects of brand exposure on motivated behavior: how apple makes you “think different”. Journal of Consumer Research, 35(1), 21-35.
  3. Bargh, J. A. (2002). Losing consciousness: Automatic influences on consumer judgment, behavior, and motivation. Journal of Consumer Research, 29(2), 280-285.
  4. Tanner, R. J., Ferraro, R., Chartrand, T. L., Bettman, J. R., & Van Baaren, R. (2008). Of chameleons and consumption: The impact of mimicry on choice and preferences. Journal of Consumer Research, 34(6), 754-766.