How Cultural Messages May Shape Individual Attitudes

How might cultural messages about group status influence our attitudes and behaviors? We are all constantly exposed to beliefs or ideas that we can recognize as being prevalent but at the same time consciously reject. For example, while most people can admit to the existence of cultural stereotypes that certain groups are more likely to be dangerous or violent, we can also clearly state that we personally do not hold or support such beliefs.

However, the impact of such cultural messages on individual attitudes may not be so straightforward. Instead, while we may be able to consciously report those cultural messages we do versus do not support, there still may be more subtle consequences of living in an environment where one is consistently exposed to certain beliefs or ideas. This question was the topic of a series of studies that my co-authors and I recently published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

To understand how cultural messages can shape individual minds, it is necessary to differentiate between two types of attitudes that everyone holds: explicit versus implicit attitudes. Explicit attitudes are evaluations that are more controllable and consciously endorsed, and they can be measured easily through self-report items such as asking people to report the degree to which they prefer Black versus White people. 

Conversely, implicit attitudes are more automatic and uncontrollable, and as a result, require a subtler form of measurement. The most common measure of implicit attitudes is the Implicit Association Test (IAT). The IAT is a computer-based categorization task. In the most common version of the IAT, participants categorize positive and negative words as well as images related to certain categories (such as faces of Black and White people) as quickly as possible using two keys. In some blocks, participants use the same key for both positive words and White faces and press the other key for both negative words and Black faces. In later blocks, the pairing switches — one key is used for positive words and Black faces, the other key for negative words and White faces. 

The IAT is scored by considering relative differences in how quickly people complete some blocks versus others. For instance, if a participant is much faster when Black faces and negative words (and White faces and positive words) share a computer key, compared to the opposite pairing, it would indicate that the person has a more positive implicit attitude towards White versus Black people.  

Two decades of research on implicit and explicit attitudes have revealed that the two forms of attitudes are certainly related; knowing someone’s self-reported preferences for White versus Black people will help you predict how they perform on an IAT measuring White-Black implicit attitudes. But implicit and explicit attitudes can differ quite noticeable in their relative strength. For instance, in a recent sample of more than 500,000 people, about 60% reported no explicit preference between White and Black people, but at the same time, around 60% of the sample showed evidence of favoring White over Black people in implicit attitudes. 

This distinction between implicit and explicit attitudes can help reveal how cultural messages can subtly impact our own minds. Specifically, since implicit attitudes are less controllable, they may be more susceptible to cultural messages that we try to reject explicitly. Indeed, psychologists frequently use the IAT to study how cultural messages shape individual attitudes. For instance, when minority group members, such as Black or Jewish Americans, complete an IAT, they often show weak or no preferences for their own group relative to the more culturally dominant group (i.e., White and Christian Americans). Such results differ markedly from explicit attitudes, where all groups report preferring their own group on average. 

These studies are often used to argue that implicit attitudes are shaped both by people’s own ingroup identity as well as cultural messages about group status. For members of majority groups, these influences are aligned. However, for minority group members, these influences are in opposition; minority group members (e.g., Black, Asian or Hispanic people) may use their own group identity as a source of positivity, but at the same time live in a culture that continually exposes them to the notion that their group occupies lower status.   

We sought to build off of this previous work by using a more detailed measure of implicit associations. Specifically, we used a version of the IAT that separated positive from negative associations. In the most common forms of the IAT, participants must pay attention to both positive and negative words simultaneously. In this new IAT, participants were told to only focus on either the positive or negative words. Participants still categorized the same stimuli, but the end result was that, across versions of the task, either the positive or negative information was made more salient. 

We then had members of majority and minority groups concerning race, religion, and sexual orientation complete measures of their implicit attitudes that either focused on the positive or negative information. Results showed that for majority group members (i.e., White, straight or Christian people), measures of positive and negative associations showed a clear preference for one’s own group. 

The story was different for members of minority groups. Minority group members favored their own groups when assessing positive associations, often to the same degree as members of majority groups. However, minority group members generally showed favoritism towards the majority group when measuring negative associations. That is, Asian participants implicitly preferred Asian over White people on measures of positive associations, but the reverse occurred in measures of negative associations. Here, Asian participants implicitly preferred White over Asian people.

These results are still preliminary, but they are broadly consistent with an explanation that positive implicit associations are more sensitive to information about one’s own group, and negative implicit associations are more sensitive to cultural messages about group status. This may be because cultural messages and stereotypes tend to accentuate certain negative characteristics about minority groups rather than positive characteristics about majority groups. 

We tried to test this idea more directly in a final study that compared groups of people who shared an ingroup identity but differed in terms of whether they lived in a culture where they were either the majority or minority group. More specifically, we compared the implicit associations of Jewish people living in the United States versus Israel. For Israeli Jews, both positive and negative associations showed a preference for Jewish over Christian people. It was only American Jews that showed more preference towards Christian people in measures of negative associations, which provides more focused evidence that being a cultural minority has a narrow impact on the formation of negative implicit associations. 

This work highlights how implicit attitudes are an increasingly complex phenomenon, and that such associations operate differently for majority and minority group members. In the future, we would like to extend this work by looking at longitudinal studies that track changes in positive and negative associations over time. We would also want to look at developmental samples, investigating at what point in life members of minority group members begin to show preferences for majority groups in negative associations. We hope that this line of research can shed light on the impact of cultural messages on the development of individual attitudes. 

These findings are described in the article entitled Simultaneous ingroup and outgroup favoritism in implicit social cognition, recently published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. This work was conducted by Jordan R. Axt from the University of Virginia and Tal Moran from the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Yoav Bar-Anan from Tel Aviv University.