Does language affect our implicit biases?

Does the language we speak shape our biases?  New research coming out of Banaji’s lab by a graduate student, Oludamini Ogunnaike, seems to say that the answer to that might be “yes.”  They report some interesting findings about how language affects our implicit biases.  Their article, recently published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, demonstrates that bilingual individuals show preference toward groups associated with the language they are being tested in.  For example, in a Moroccan population, Moroccans tested in Arabic showed an implicit preference (using the Implicit Association Test or IAT) for other Moroccan names compared to French names.  When participants took the test in French, this difference disappeared.  In the U.S., bilinguals tested in Spanish (compared to English) showed a greater preference for Hispanic individuals.  These differences disappeared when participants were tested in English.

This research has interesting implications for the study of biases and prejudice (my own area of specialty).  If the same individuals can show such differences in their own attitudes based on what language they are tested in, how much more-so do these differences exist cross-culturally (i.e., people speaking different languages who are monolingual)?  Additionally, one starts to wonder how language particular to a certain group of people (e.g., ethnic, religious, and political groups) might shape biases that prefer or favor one’s own in-group.  In short, how does the way we talk and the language we speak shape our attitudes?  Years of research has demonstrated that using “us” vs. “them” language increases biases, but can speaking just in language relative to one’s own in-group do it as well?  For instance, using religious words like “Spirit,” “Enemy” (to refer to Satan), etc. might increase bias towards non-Christians.  The literature on priming religion seems to indicate that exposure to these words, at the very least, increases bias.  Could testing individuals using religious (or political or any other group) jargon increase bias in the same way that using different languages does?


*An interesting summary of this research can be found in the Harvard Gazette.

About Megan Johnson Shen

I am a social psychologist graduating with my Ph.D. from Baylor University this May and moving to NYC this summer to start a new job as a postdoctoral researcher at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in the Cancer Prevention and Control Department. I love the brain, human behavior, and anything to do with understanding them better. I love research and a good dinner party. Fine wine and cheese - I'm there. Interesting experimental data? I'll probably show for that too. View all posts by Megan Johnson Shen

2 responses to “Does language affect our implicit biases?

  • boston

    you’re welcome 😉

  • Joel

    Have you read anything on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s conception of language games and forms of life? It might help explain a bit of the bias involved in the process. (I apologize in advance for the length of the comment.)

    Wittgenstein explains that we all participate in many forms of life (which you could define as some role you play to a specific group of people). Each form of life has a language game that you participate in when you are in that form of life. The language game has rules that are not explained, but those who play the language game all know how to play by the rules of the language game. Inside the language game, words have meanings that are understood by the participants, but someone outside the language game may think they are talking nonsense because the outsider doesn’t know the rules nor the meaning of the words. (If you’ve seen the movie Hook, the scene where the pirates are chanting “Run Home Jack” is a perfect example of someone outside the language game (in this case, baseball) trying to play the language game unsuccessfully.)

    Wittgenstein is concerned with accurately conveying meaning between the language games. He argues that using language to convey meaning between language games is likely going to be faulty. The two language games may be using the same words in ways they can agree upon, but actually mean two different things. So when we’re using our language game, especially on a significant form of life like religion, we may be prone to bias because those with whom we participate in that language game with understand an important part of our lives that we cannot clearly communicate verbally to those outside. The fact that the verbal expression of language is a game with rules and meanings not understood to those outside the game may inadvertently produce bias.

    Now Wittgenstein argues that there are meaningful ways to communicate between two language games, but these involve demonstrating meaning in living, and with religion in particular, in the way it changes the way you live and see the world. Someone who is a successful player of both language games may be able to set up a lexicon of sorts for each game, but I think ultimately, on issues of religion, it may be hard to find someone playing multiple religion language games successfully, which may mean it is impossible to eliminate all bias from our religious language.

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