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). Knowing how implicit biases are encoded in the mind and brain can help us predict the way it will influence behavior and inform ways to reduce its impact.