When people read or hear news about abortion, George W. Bush or Democrats, do they evaluate it fairly before reaching a conclusion? Not at all, say two political scientists at Stony Brook University. Milton Lodge and Charles Taber maintain that people react automatically to “hot button” terms. “Our experiments reveal that they react so quickly—in less than 300 milliseconds—that they cannot be consciously [evaluating] the information,” Taber says.

In tests of Stony Brook undergraduates, Lodge and Taber displayed a “prime” word—the name of a politician, such as “Bush” or “Gore,” or an issue, such as “death penalty” or “affirmative action”—for 200 milliseconds, long enough to register in perception centers of the brain but not long enough to reach conscious awareness. Then, after flashing a brief blank screen, the researchers presented a “target” word such as “delightful” or “miserable” that stayed on the screen and asked the students to press a “+” key if the target word was associated with a positive emotion or “–” for a negative one. The outcome showed that students’ reactions to the nonpolitical target words were affected by their political orientation.

For example, when Republicans saw “Bush” and then a word such as “joy,” they pressed the + key in about 800 milliseconds, but Democrats took around 1,000 milliseconds to do the same. Being primed by “Bush” created an unconscious but negative affect for Democrats, causing them to take longer to shake their predisposition and respond positively to “joy.” Similar outcomes occurred with other political primes and unrelated targets, proving that the students were unconsciously reacting positively or negatively. The experiments show that many people get locked into preconceived views that bias them when they process new data.

Can people rid themselves of bias? Yes, Taber conjectures, “but only after getting many pieces of new information and consciously thinking about the issue.”