Living in a society in which racial and gender inequality are a fundamental underlying condition means that even when we think of ourselves as totally enlightened and egalitarian, we often times hold unconscious biases. But now it turns out there may be a way to rid yourself of these unconscious biases while you are, well, unconscious: Scientists now say that racial and gender biases can be unlearned during sleep, which would certainly be an awesome (and restful) way to make the world a better place.
As the the study, which was published in the journal Science, explains, "Although people may endorse egalitarianism and tolerance, social biases can remain operative and drive harmful actions in an unconscious manner." In oder to try to counteract this, researchers at Northwestern University first tested participants to attempt to find their baseline in subconscious biases, and then presented participants with "counterstereotype information" such as pairing a female face with words associated with math and science or pairing a black face with positive words.
During the counterstereotype phase, the researchers also played a particular sound for each different type of bias confronted. After this first phase, participants then each took a 90 minute nap during which time one of the two tones was played, either the one associated with race or gender, though participants were not told which it was.
After the initial counterstereotype training, researchers found that participants' unconscious biases were already reduced. However, after participants were once again tested for unconscious biases after their nap, and the researchers found that the biases associated with the sound cues played during sleep had fallen even more drastically, by about 56 percent on average from their pre-sleep score. Even more remarkable, effects of the sleep reinforcement were still seen a week later, from just one session.
Of course, it's too early to celebrate the beginning of the end of prejudice just yet. As the researchers themselves point out, there are lots of questions left to answer, including how long these results really do last, and whether they are strong enough to have an effect on behavior.
"Producing lasting changes in implicit biases is challenging,” one of the co-authors, Galen Bodenhausen, professor of psychology at Northwestern, told The Guardian. “These biases arise from long-term socialisation, and they are frequently reinforced by the mass media.”
Plus there's the fact that things like racism and sexism aren't just a matter of prejudices, but also of quantifiable inequality. Generations of income and wealth disparity between white people and people of color, for instance, won't go away if people get rid of their unconscious racial biases, and eliminating unconscious sexism won't automatically create things like paid maternity leave, for instance.
Still, these findings could have big implications. We already know that there are a ton of ways in which unconscious biases affect people's behavior. Science has shown that again and again and again and again and again and again. But because people often aren't even aware of those attitudes, they can be difficult to change even when you want to. For one thing, as this study explains it, "biases are acquired over many years of exposure to stereotypes, and they can efficiently operate without occupying cognitive resources." And for another, when certain biases are widespread in society there is very little motivation to change.
However, if we could confront people's unconscious prejudices in a meaningful and lasting way, that could have major implications if it was widespread enough. In addition to making life a lot more pleasant for people who routinely have to deal with prejudice, it also could make it possible for us as a society to institute any number of more fundamental reforms that could correct some of the larger inequalities in our society, beyond just the interpersonal ones. And that would be awesome.
Though I suppose the fact that we can apparently make major adjustments in people's attitudes while they're sleeping is also kind of a freaky thought. So while I am 100 percent on board with using it to confront prejudice, someone should probably keep an eye on that.