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New Study Reveals "Unconscious White Preference" In Medical School Admissions

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A new study by researchers at The Ohio State University puts firmer numbers on the phenomenon of implicit racial bias. Researchers believe an unconscious "white preference" could impede the entry of African Americans into the medical profession, where they and other minorities are underrepresented.

The study was published in Academic Medicine, a journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges. To discuss implicit bias in medical school admissions, WOSU's Sam Hendren spoke to Dr. Quinn Capers IV, lead author of the study and the associate dean of admissions at Ohio State’s medical school.

Click the play button below to hear their conversation.

The below transcript is an automated transcript. Please excuse minor typos and errors.

Quinn Capers: Unconscious bias, first of all, is the automatic associations or preferences that your unconscious mind makes when it is bombarded by all the stimuli in the world. And so if one has grown up exposed to stimuli such as reading books, the movies, information from your parents that couple, let's say for instance, African-Americans with danger, then that can seep into your subconscious mind, that your subconscious mind automatically associates an African-American face with danger.

Now that could be completely counter to how you feel consciously. So that consciously you might not be aware that you have these feelings but your unconscious mind can immediately make these couplings. And even though these are unconscious biases, they can impact your behavior.... Those who have this unconscious racial bias, or white preference, is another term for it, they can be more prone to have discriminatory actions against African-Americans or Hispanics or others even when it is counter to how they believe and feel consciously. 

Sam Hendren: Well what is the black-white implicit association test? How did it come about and how did you administer it? 

Quinn Capers: So this is actually a computer-based test and it's simply a test that shows you photographs of white persons and black persons and it asks you to couple the photograph with positive terms: happy, joy, love. Then it asks you to reverse that and couple them with negative terms: pain, fear, misery, etc. And it asks you to do it faster and faster such that at a certain point your unconscious is really taking over.

And then it measures in milliseconds how long it takes for you to make these associations. So that for instance if  you can rapidly associate a white face with good things and a black face with bad things, but it takes you longer to associate a black face with good things, then that would define this unconscious white preference. 

Sam Hendren: Well, a few years ago all 140 members of the Ohio State College of Medicine admissions committee took that test. What did you find out? 

Quinn Capers: So what we found, we had all 140 members of our admissions committee -- this is the body that selects incoming medical students -- we had them all take the test, and so we got the anonymous results back. We wanted it to be anonymous so people would feel comfortable taking the test. What we found is that all four groups -- students, faculty, men, women -- had significant levels of this unconscious white preference. 

Sam Hendren: I wonder if they were able to get the results of your study and did it light a few inner light bulbs or did it make people more aware of their unconscious preferences? 

Quinn Capers: Sure. The next phase of this was we presented this information at our annual admissions committee training session. About 48 percent said that after having done this test and seeing their individual result, that they were conscious of the individual results in the following admissions committee cycle when they're interviewing students. And that 21 percent, one in five, said that knowing their individual results on this actually impacted their admissions decisions the very next admissions cycle. 

Sam Hendren: The implicit association test has been given at a number of colleges and universities. How is Ohio State doing these days? 

Quinn Capers: As it turns out after this test, our very next admissions cycle which followed this test, the class elected and matriculated at Ohio State was the most diverse in our College of Medicine at that time. Knowing that you had this bias, which in most cases we assume is counter to how you feel consciously, our committee members might have modified their behavior to make minority students they were interviewing feel valued and recruited and like we really want you here at Ohio State. We think that resulted in some more of those students wanting to come to Ohio State because they perceive a very, very inclusive climate. 

Sam Hendren: That's an amazing outcome. How much of this can you attribute to your efforts? 

Quinn Capers: It's hard to measure it but our efforts at diversity enhancement had always resulted in a few more minority students matriculating. But one thing we know for sure is that our admissions committee is now certainly sensitized to implicit bias.