What is self-regulation?
Self-regulation is the process of overcoming biases, distractions, and temptations in order to act according to our goals. Because most people posses implicit racial biases, even if they disavow prejudice, self-regulation is often needed to respond in a non-prejudiced manner.
Neural basis of prejudice control
A major focus of our research concerns the mechanisms of prejudice control. That is, how exactly does control operate in the mind and brain? Our early research showed that control relied on the detection of bias—a process linked to activity of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC; Amodio et al., 2004). We found that people varied in ACC sensitivity to the biasing effects of race; those with more sensitive detection systems were better are responding without bias, independent of their explicit prejudiced attitudes (Amodio et al., 2008).
We also showed that people sometimes control their responses based on external social cues—how another person thinks they should act—and that this form of detection relies on the rostral ACC/medial prefrontal cortex (Amodio et al., 2006).
More recently, we have shown that early, goal-directed attention is also key to successful prejudice control. Using a combination of EEG frontal asymmetry and ERPs, we found that stronger approach motivation during an implicit bias task is associated with greater automatic attention to race cues, which in turn leads to better control—a pattern observed in low-prejudice people but not high-prejudice people (Amodio, 2010).
For more on the self-regulation of prejudice in the mind and brain, see Amodio (2014).
Proactive and Reactive control of prejudice
Self-regulation can be proactive, such that we focus more strongly on our goals even before we encounter a bias. Or it can be reactive, engaged by an encounter with the bias itself. Our research has shown that both forms of control likely operate in concert, but that proactive control is more effective and less prone to failure than reactive control. In fact, in one set of studies, we found that increased proactive control can completely eliminate expressions of racial bias on common implicit bias tasks (Amodio & Swencionis, 2018). Other research showed that forming an action plan in advance—one that is activated in response to a race cue and leads to a non-biased response—also functions as an effective proactive form of bias control (Mendoza et al., 2010).
We have also found that anxiety may lead people to rely more strongly on reactive control (Schmid et al., 2015a), which may help to explain why people have more trouble regulating implicit bias when stressed or anxious (Amodio, 2009). By comparison, experiencing feelings of high power may enhance control by facilitating the link between reactive control and action (Schmid et al., 2015b).