Effects of Racial Bias Stereotypes on Eyewitness Memory

Racial Bias/Stereotypes on Eyewitness Memory

In our quest for a democratic, tolerant, and racist-free society, we affirm and believe that although earlier centuries may have prejudice-prone and biased, we of the 21st century have largely overcome that disposition. Yet, as Fiske (2002), for instance, shows 10% of Americans persist in conspicuously voicing their bias, but a full 80% practice subtle bias which manifest itself by cool treatment towards the outsider, or by rejecting outsider altogether. This sort of prejudice may become what is known as 'symbolic racism' where the possessor turns to convention to boost his views (for instance, "well, everyone knows that they are violent.")

People may affirm that becoming aware of the existence and irrationality of their prejudice will influence them to reverse it, but countless cases show that prejudice is so invasive and insidious that it is, what Brekke and Wilson (1994) termed, a mental contaminant, and what Bargh (e.g. 2002) over and again informed is instinctive, implicit, and extremely resilient to change. Today's primarily cognitive approach to stereotypes perceives stereotypes as initiating from cultural conditioning, therefore inherent in us from the earliest of years and, consequently, internalized to an uncontrollable degree. The evolutionary perspective posits that stereotypes function as mental schema, and as such are heuristics that instinctively compel us to visualize objects and people in certain manner.

Not all stereotypes are negative. They may act for our benefit by liberating some of the 'mental clutter' and freeing our resources for more important matters. In an evolutionary manner, stereotypes are supposed to instinctively prod us to the realization what one category is positive for us, whereas another is negative. Unfortunately, however, stereotypes -- negative stereotypes in this context -- may be harmful, too, since, aside from resulting in erroneous thinking, they may also cause harm to another. There is the self-reinforced prophecy which states that perception of another may prompt the target to reciprocate in kind (namely, to actualize the perception), whilst, lastly, there is the unfortunate happenstance that even though we may sincerely desire to do what is right, instinctive stereotyping (our tendency to view the other in a categorical rather than in a particular manner) may cause one to interpret incidents in an incorrect manner thus effecting eyewitness memory and account.

The following essay addresses this point by presenting the three main posited causes of stereotyping, elaborating on their power and resistance to human knowledge, indicating how they can affect eyewitness memory, and, concluding, by presenting some of the prime prejudice-reducing interventions that have been formulated to reverse bias and by evaluating their result. The conclusion sums up the effect of prejudice on eyewitness memory, and what we can do to restrain it.

Chapter 1.

The three main positive causes of stereotype, posited by contemporary accounts include the following:

Cognitive Orientation

This is, allegedly, the most popular contemporary theory: Stereotypes are mental schema that originates from social and cultural conditioning; evolutionary psychology assumes that they are evolutionarily determined and, as such, function for our survival. They are innate, instinctive, and resilient to control. Prominent models include Macrae and Bodenhausen's (2000) whole-or-none association where evidence suggests that activating a portion of the schema tends to activate the unit as a whole in an all-or-none fashion that is seemingly resilient to control. More so, through repetition, mental schemas become ever more intense causing their representative semantic or lexical node, when primed, to become instinctively and speedily activated and then spreading to evaluative nodes (Klauer & Musch, 2003). In this way, strength of activation is increased though object-evaluation and instinctive categorical and holistic, rather than particularistic percepts of the target are formed. And these percepts may not always be accurate. Most, if not all of the prejudice intervention models, incorporate this orientation. Reflective of the 'computer age' and the current paradigm of thinking, the cognitive approach believes, as Stangor (2009) in his Introduction to the "Handbook of prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination" proclaims, that "stereotypes and prejudices .. are, of course, developed as all cognitive representations are developed, and we have a good idea of the cognitive process involved in this regard." (pp.17). "The dominant image of prejudice," as Duckitt (1989) in his review of the history of prejudice concludes, "came to be that it was an inevitable outcome of cognitive categorization" (1189). Critics, however, feel that the cognitive approach is lacking for the following reasons: it fails to explain the difference in prejudice evidenced by people; whilst some evidence slight prejudice, others indicate extreme and ineradicable bias towards outsiders. Secondly, interventions, although modeled on the cognitive theory, are not always successful in eradicating bias, and thirdly, affect is a substance of prejudice and is, oftentimes, stronger than cognition. For that reason, social scientists have presented alternative determinants of prejudice


The motivational stream posits prejudice to be a factor of social threat. Some outgroups -- Asians, Jews, career women, Black processionals, rich people - are resented and disliked since they seem to threaten the in-group, whilst others -- elderly, disabled, housewives -- are pitied and disrespected for their perceived incompetence, and outliers, such as the homeless, drug addicts, and the very poor are condemned as being disreputable and manipulative (Fiske, 2002). Social or personal motives, on the other hand, such as attempts to curry favor with a prospective employer may compel one to individuate rather than to categorize.

Affective Orientation

Using MRI-based studies as their primary contention, supporters of this approach point to the fact that prejudice is an attitude and as such constitutes affect (i.e. emotion) too. More so, fMRI images demonstrate that the amygdala, a neural region intricately involved with emotion becomes activated in the prejudice-producing situation (e.g., Amodio et al., 2003). People think in terms of 'I feel' rather than an 'I think' manner (Schwarz & Clore, 1983); they tend to evaluatively sum up the other in an emotional rather than in an analytical manner. Emotion, in fact, precedes cognition, overwhelms it, and usually binds it to its decree. In short, emotional penetrability causes cognitive impenetrability (Dalgleish & Power, 1999).

The truth is that prejudice (namely negative stereotypes) are probably a combination of both cognition and emotion depending on the strength of the person's attitude, on his or her inclination to prefer a cognitive or emotional approach (which is dependent upon the individual's character), and on the intensity of the situation.

The fact that prejudice most likely consists of both components can best be seem from the experiment conducted by Wittenbrink and colleagues (2001) where they demonstrated that differences may be attributed to the fact that two different primes - conceptual and evaluative -- are used and that these tapped into two different memory contents: the conceptual task results in the phenomenon of the participants responding to stereotypes typical of the primed group, whilst the evaluative task results in "a more generalized form of automatic prejudice" (251).

Regardless of its determinant, prejudice is harmful, specifically so since it may influence eyewitness memory as the following section shows.

How Bias Affects Eyewitness Account

Bias affects eyewitness account in various ways, but first there is the curious phenomenon of own race bias (ORB), where the perceiver remembers people of his own race more acutely than the faces of the race of another (Meissner & Brigham, 2001). Meissner and Brigham (2001) conducted a meta-analysis of over 30 years of 39 research articles that involved 91 independent samples and more than 5,0000 participants. Employing a measure of hit and miss alarm rates, and after discounting several theoretical relationships such as interracial contact and the influence of racial attitudes, the authors concluded that results indicated a "mirror effect" pattern where own race faces (particularly amongst Whites) yielded a higher rate of hits and a lower proportion of misses than faces of other races did. What this implies is that perceivers have better and more accurate eyewitness memory for faces that resemble their own race than from those of another.

What is fascinating is that children as early as three tend to be somewhat influenced by stereotyping which then impacts their eyewitness report (Leichtman & Ceci, 1995). The researchers theorized that before witnessing a certain event, children may be fed with particular stereotypes about the person involved, which leads them then to expect, and discover behavior representing these stereotypes in the target person. This behavior will then be remembered disproportionately to the whole. Such a situation, for instance, happens in court cases where child perceives defendant (namely estranged parent) in terms of custodian's stereotype-filled criticism. To test whether stereotypes would effect preschoolers eyewitness accounts, Leichtman and Ceci (1995) divided one hundred and seventy-six preschoolers into two randomized groups and assigned them to four separate conditions, one being stereotype. A stranger names Sam Stone would conduct a two-minute visit where he would stroll in, say hello to the teacher, comment on the story then being read, stroll around the perimeters of the classroom, wave goodbye to the children and then leave. The stereotyping manipulation would beforehand portray this person…