Confronting the Causes of Racial Discrimination

Some claim that the United States is not a racist nation, and that may be true in an important, but very narrow sense. The presence of conscious, intentional racial prejudice has subsided. And only a small percentage of Americans view expressed racially biased views as acceptable in open society. This trend is a welcome development, though implicit racial bias and structural racial bias remain huge problems in our society

Such a claim also ignores the impact that some of the behavioral factors that we address in our videos can have upon bias.  Let’s examine just a few, focusing on an experiment by Arthur Brief and colleagues that studied the impact that the tendency people have to be obedient to authority can have on hiring decisions.

In an experiment, some subjects were asked to rate some Black and some White job applicants, and then make a hiring decision. Other subjects were to evaluate and hire from among the same candidates, but unlike the first group, members of the second group of subjects were given this communication from the company CEO:

In the past, we have kept our [marketing] teams as homogenous as possible. We feel that similar people will have similar goals and ideas. Importantly the particular team to which [the new marketing representative] will be assigned currently includes no minority group members. Our organization attempts to match the characteristics of our representatives with the characteristics of the population to which they will be assigned. The particular territory to which your selected representative will be assigned contains relatively few minority group members. Therefore, in this particular situation, I feel that it is important that you do not hire anyone that is a member of a minority group.

In this setting, where a legitimate authority figure provided a business-justification for the instruction to racially discriminate, the subjects were less likely to hire a qualified Black candidate than subjects receiving no such instructions.

Interestingly, in a second iteration of the study, a similar communication came from a CEO who, some subjects were told, had just been fired for “a very long history of improprieties.” Because the CEO was no longer viewed as a legitimate authority figure, the communication had little adverse impact on hiring behavior.

When faced with instructions from a legitimate authority figure who offers a facially plausible justification for racial discrimination, subordinates making the hiring decision are more prone to discriminate against qualified Black candidates.  Why?

At least a couple of things might be going on here.

The science shows that sometimes subordinates can become so focused on pleasing the boss, which humans are wired to do, that ethical fading may occur as the subject focuses so much on pleasing the authority figure that the ethical problems with the action the boss has ordered just fade away.

Or, the subordinates might be more cognizant of the wrongs ordered by the boss, but do them anyway because they muster a rationalization, most specifically—denial of responsibility. The notion is that people manage to continue to think of themselves as good people, even as they do bad things because it is not their fault—they were ordered to do the bad thing by a legitimate authority figure. As a soldier who was ordered to mistreat captives in Iraq said to himself: “I think about following [my superior’s] instructions. It’s not my interrogation. It’s not my sin.”

Many factors contribute to the racial discrimination we see in our society today. The factors we study in behavioral ethics are relevant and important, but certainly, they do not tell the entire story. But if you wish to be the sort of person that your dog can be proud of, you will:

  • guard against following your natural inclination to please your boss by doing something that you know is discriminatory
  • guard against ethical fading and always try to keep ethical criteria in your frame of reference as you make important decisions
  • monitor your own rationalizations and never decide that your discriminatory act is not your fault because you were just doing what your boss or your client wanted

“The time is always right to do what is right.” –Martin Luther King



Vikas Anand et al., “Business as Usual: The Acceptance and Perpetuation of Corruption in Organizations,” Academy of Management Perspectives 18(2): 39-53 (2004).

Cara Biasucci & Robert Prentice, Behavioral Ethics in Practice: Why We Sometimes Make the Wrong Decision (2021).

Arthur Brief et al., “Just Doing Business: Modern Racism and Obedience to Authority as Explanations for Employment Discrimination,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 61(1): 72-94 (2000).

Eric Fair, Consequence: A Memoir (2016).

Scott Plous, “The Psychology of Prejudice, Stereotyping, and Discrimination: An Overview,” in Understanding Prejudice and Discrimination (S. Plous, ed. 2000).



Ethical Fading:

Implicit Bias:

Obedience to Authority:


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