How is prejudice learned? And how does it influence our behavior?

Humans learn about other people in multiple ways (Amodio, 2019), and multiple learning mechanisms contribute to the formation of prejudice (Amodio & Cikara, 2021). We can consciously remember specific people, places, and events (episodic memory) or recall all kinds of general knowledge (semantic memory). We may have automatic associations between concepts that often go together (semantic associative memory), affective reactions to threat or reward (Pavlovian learning), approach/avoidance behavioral associations (instrumental learning), and automatic behavioral responses (habits). Each of these depends on different neural processes, and in everyday life, they usually work together to guide our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. And some of these memory systems can learn and function with little conscious thought—forming and influencing our behaviors without our awareness or intention. To understand these effects, we have proposed a memory systems model of implicit social cognition (Amodio, 2019; Amodio, 2008; Amodio & Ratner, 2011).

Research in the Amodio Lab examines the role of different memory systems in the formation and expression of implicit bias. We have shown that implicit bias may reside in semantic associative memory, emotional memory (i.e., Pavlovian threat conditioning), and instrumental memory (Amodio & Ratner, 2011). Importantly, these memory systems influence our thoughts and actions in different ways. For example, implicit semantic associations may lead to stereotypical judgments, whereas implicit emotional bias is linked to anxiety and unfriendly nonverbals (Amodio et al., 2003; Amodio & Devine, 2006). Moreover, we found that anxiety about the appearing prejudice selectively amplifies the activation of implicit prejudice but not implicit stereotypes (Amodio & Hamilton, 2012).

More recently, we have examined the role of instrumental learning in the formation of prejudice. Instrumental learning supports the formation of reward associations through action and feedback, such as in reward reinforcement learning paradigms, and it addresses how we learn about people through direct social interaction. Research in the lab shows that social stereotypes influence how we form preferences toward group members in direct interactions, via instrumental learning (Stillerman et al., under review). It also shows that, through instrumental learning, the preferences we form about group members in direct interactions generalizes to group-level prejudiced attitudes (Hackel et al., 2022). Much of our current work examines the role of instrumental reinforcement learning processes in different aspects of prejudice and stereotyping.

Broadly, we believe that an understanding of the learning mechanisms underlying prejudice and stereotyping is essential for predicting how such biases influence behavior and how they may be effectively reduced.