The heart of the matter: Addressing stereotypes head on

It's easy to jump onto the racial reconciliation bandwagon without carefully examining our true motivations for doing so.  I regularly meet people who complain that now that they are aware of the need for racial reconciliation and of their own biases towards other cultural groups, they find that they have a difficult time overriding those biases in order to perceive other groups accurately and fairly.  This is not surprising because stereotypes provide a shortcut that enables us to conserve our limited mental energy.  By rejecting the shortcut, we run the risk of depleting our precious mental resources. However, research shows that we are more likely to run this risk if our hearts are in the wrong place. We will experience mental exhaustion if we are externally motivated and simply want to override biased perceptions so that we don’t appear to be prejudiced or because multiculturalism is in vogue or because we feel guilty. However, we will experience less mental exhaustion if our hearts are in the right place and we are internally motivated by a sincere belief that these biases cause unbiblical divisions that must be overcome. If we want to rid ourselves of inaccurate perceptions of other groups in the body of Christ, we must start with our hearts.

Sure enough, plenty of research shows that the mental effort we must expend to override inaccurate stereotypes during cross-cultural interactions depletes our mental energy store, but only if we are externally motivated and our primary concern is that we will appear biased.

In one chilling study[i], racial bias researcher Jennifer Richeson  led white participants to believe that they might be perceived as racially prejudiced and then asked them to partner with either a black or white individual for a discussion on several topics, one of which was race-related (“campus diversity”). Next she asked all participants to complete a supposedly unrelated mental task on their own. She predicted that participants who were asked to collaborate with a black partner would be externally motivated to appear unprejudiced and would expend mental energy to override inaccurate nonconscious perceptions of blacks.  As a result, she predicted that these participants would perform worse on the subsequent mental task (compared to participants who conversed with white participants) because the process of overriding nonconscious perceptions would consume most of their limited mental energy. Indeed, she found this to be true. Richeson concluded that cross-cultural interactions are mentally-taxing if individuals are extrinsically motivated to appear unbiased and consciously override inaccurate default perceptions in order to avoid being perceived as biased.

Further, other researchers have found that extrinsically motivated people who attempt to suppress stereotypes during cross-cultural interactions not only experience cognitive exhaustion but also end up being bombarded by the stereotypical thoughts that they were trying to suppress! I’ll borrow Dan Wegner’s famous example[ii] to help you see how this ironic process works. For the next minute or so, close your eyes and try not to think about a white bear. You can think about anything but a white bear. Just don’t think about a white bear. Once a minute has passed, feel free to think about whatever you want.  If you’re like most people, the first thought that will come to mind is a white bear!  This weird effect occurs because the mere act of suppressing a thought makes it even more prevalent in our minds. Essentially, the suppressed thought hovers just beneath the surface of our consciousness, like a beach ball that has been forcefully submerged in a pool and fights to reach the water’s surface. Once we stop suppressing the thought, it immediately and willfully breaks through to the surface of our consciousness.

Social cognitive psychologist Neil Macrae found that when participants were asked to temporarily suppress a skinhead stereotype while describing a day in the life of a specific skinhead, they were more likely to use the stereotype on a second skinhead-related task[iii]. The once-suppressed stereotype came bounding back into their consciousness and greatly impacted the perceptions that immediately followed.

Well-intentioned plans to suppress inaccurate perceptions of other church groups during cross-cultural interactions are bound to backfire if we do not actually believe that the inaccurate perceptions should be suppressed.[iv] We must examine our hearts and discover why we might be clinging to biased beliefs about other groups. We must ask ourselves why we’re afraid to let go of those biased beliefs. Then, we must ask our head, Christ, to heal our eyes, ears, mouths and hearts, so that we can begin to perceive accurately and freely.

[i] Richeson & Trawalter, 2005

[ii] Wegner, Schneider, Carter, & White, 1987

[iii] Macrae, Bodenhausen Milne, & Wheeler, 1994

[iv] Gordijn, Hindriks, Koomen, Dijksterhuis, & van Knippenberg, 2004