American culture supports the credo that individuals should be judged on the basis of their own actions, not the actions of others. But our recent research, to be published in Psychological Science (“Implicit Attitude Generalization Occurs Immediately, Explicit Attitude Generalization Takes Time”), suggests that, despite any intentions to consider members of a group as individuals, humans may not have the cognitive abilities to keep information that we learn about one person from a group from leaking into our evaluation of another person from that same group.
In our experiment we presented participants with a variety of behaviors performed by two individuals – Reemolap and Vabbenif. Reemolap was generally a good guy, performing 12 positive behaviors (i.e. visiting a sick friend in the hospital) and only 4 negative ones. Vabbenif was no angel, performing 12 negative behaviors (i.e. parking in a handicapped space) and only 4 positive ones.
We told participants that the Laapians, Reemolap’s people, and the Niffians, Vabbenif’s people, are large, diverse groups and introduced them to two new people who belong to those groups. Participants learned very little about these new people, and what they did learn was not particularly good or bad. We wondered whether evaluations of the original people, the clearly positive Reemolap and clearly negative Vabbenif, would influence the evaluations of the new people just on the basis of belonging to the same group.
We measured evaluations by asking people how they felt about the original and new people, and by measuring how strongly they associated the individuals with good or bad using an implicit measure called the Implicit Association Test. Not surprisingly, both self-reported evaluations and implicit associations toward the original people reflected the behaviors that they performed. Reemolap was liked more than Vabbenif explicitly and implicitly (other participants learned that Vabbenif did more of the positive behaviors, and those participants liked him more).
When we measured evaluations of the new people, about whom participants had learned very little, explicitly participants resisted generalizing their explicit evaluations of the original people. Reemolap and Vabbenif’s actions were not accepted as being relevant for judging other people belonging to their groups. However, subjects did generalize from the original people to the new people on the implicit measure. Participants associated the new Laapian with good and Niffian with bad just as much as they associated the individuals that actually performed the behaviors. In other words, implicitly at least, subjects treated the original people and new people as if they were exactly the same.
In a sense, this is reassuring evidence for the importance of conscious, deliberate processing. The fact that the original and new people shared a group membership was sufficient for implicit associations to transfer the evaluations of one person to another. But, explicit evaluations did not conform, and showed that people can decide not to use such a simple association as the basis for judging individuals. That, however, is not the end of the story.
We followed-up with the participants a few days later to see if their implicit and explicit evaluations would change over time. We hypothesized that the strategies that people use to avoid generalizing from one person to another require a clear memory of who-did-what. As that memory fades with the passage of time, people might lose the ability to prevent their evaluations from generalizing, even in their conscious deliberation. In the follow-up session days later, instead of resisting the transfer of attitudes, both implicit and explicit attitudes toward the original people generalized to the new people.
While we humans may be able to resist generalizing actions of one group member to others in the short-term, this ability fades as the details of those events decline. It seems that where individuals were evaluated relatively independently at first, eventually the actions of one became the basis for evaluating the other. An encounter with one member of a group can have unintended effects on evaluations of other members of that group if we lose the details that differentiate the individuals.
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You can download a preprint of the forthcoming article here. To visit the Project Implicit website and find out more about implicit associations, click here. For a list of Situationist posts on implicit associations and attitudes, click here.