Mixed Motives and Racial Bias: The Impact of Legitimate and Illegitimate Criteria on Decision-Making

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Recent high-profile court rulings addressing the influence of illegitimate information--such as race--on decision making have highlighted the difficulty of establishing whether and when discrimination has occurred. One factor complicating such efforts is that decision makers are often simultaneously influenced by racial and nonracial information. The authors examined the psychological processes underlying such mixed-motive decision making, demonstrating how legitimate information can be manipulated to justify preferences based on illegitimate factors such as race. Study 1 showed that Black candidates were favored over White candidates in hypothetical college admissions decisions, although participants justified their decisions using nonracial information, and further showed that participants' levels of prejudice predicted both which candidate was chosen and how those choices were justified. Study 2 demonstrated that these justifications were not simply strategic and post hoc but also occurred as a natural part of the process of evaluating candidates. Discussion focuses on policy and legal implications for employment discrimination, affirmative action, and courtroom proceedings.

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Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, v. 12, issue 1, p. 36-55.