Social movements capture headlines but do they actually change attitudes? Does a movement enhance or thwart its own goals? What about push-back? Social scientists and historians often debate these questions. A recent study provides some insight.

Implicit and explicit racial attitudes of bias against black people are common in the US. Both implicit and explicit attitudes reflect how people treat others. But they operate somewhat independent of one another. Thus, a person may explicitly profess to not be biased against black people, but still display implicit bias when put to the test.

Much research has been devoted on how to change racial bias attitudes, and recently much has focused on implicit bias. Many approaches have been suggested and found to be effective in laboratory settings, but the results do not hold up after a day or two, possibly because society is constantly pushing back with ingrained, structural anti-black bias.

Many people posited that the example of a black president, Obama, would lead to longer term attitude change, but research looking for an “Obama effect” has failed to show any widescale change over time.

A recent study has now looked at the impact of a social justice movement, Black Lives Matter (BLM). There are several ways a social movement, such as BLM, differs from the presence of a single exemplar like Obama. A social movement pushes back against group stereotypes (e.g. blacks as criminal) by highlighting counterimages of group status (e.g. blacks as targets of police brutality). BLM has allowed black people to “speak for themselves” in the media, highlighting their humanity. The BLM movement, while Black-led, has drawn support and participation from white people and others, creating the possibility of a shared identity as anti-racists. The movement has increased the number and visibility of occasions for raising arguments for racial equity and justice. And a social movement carries greater promise that effective change can and will take place.

As plausible as these reasons may appear, the question remains, has the Black Lives Matter movement had an impact?

To answer this question, the researchers turned to Project Implicit, which hosts an online site that allows individuals to assess their level of implicit bias. They established a date range for the study, beginning January 1, 2009 and ending June 30, 2016, shortly before the study took place. The dates encapsulate a before-and-during period for Black Lives Matter which first began to appear prominently in mainstream media around July 6, 2013, a week before the trial of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. Over that entire time period, more than one million persons took the implicit bias test for racial attitudes.

The researchers reviewed media references to BLM and identified 7 periods of heightened activity. One period, for instance, took place between August 9 and September 5, 2014 with the uprising in Ferguson, MO over the killing of Michael Brown. Another took place between June 13 and July 3, 2015 with the murder of 9 parishioners in a Charleston, SC church and subsequent protests over the Confederate flag flying on the South Carolina state capitol grounds. Data were unavailable for one period, leaving six periods of heightened BLM activity for analysis.

Project Implicit measures both implicit and explicit attitudes, allowing the researchers to look at each and make comparisons. It also has participants identify their race and other demographic statuses. The researchers focused primarily on white and black participants, although they conducted a broader analysis of effects by race as well.

The researchers measured bias according to how pro-white or pro-black a person’s attitudes are. These two positions form the extreme ends of a scale. In the middle, a person can be neutral, neither pro-white or pro-black. So, if one moves toward being more pro-black, they also move away from being pro-white, and vice versa.


Whites overall showed a pro-white bias during the entire period, but this bias decreased during the BLM period. In the pre-BLM period, whites’ pro-white attitudes had been increasing, but during the BLM period this trend reversed itself. These findings were consistent for both implicit and explicit attitudes.

Blacks overall showed “a slight pro-Black preference implicitly…and a stronger pro-Black preference explicitly.” During the BLM period, implicit pro-Black attitudes increased marginally among Blacks. This reversed the trend during the pre-BLM period in which implicit attitudes among blacks were becoming less pro-Black.

However, explicit pro-Black attitudes among Blacks actually decreased during the BLM period. The researchers note that, taken together, the explicit attitudes of both groups moved toward the center, reflecting “an egalitarian or ‘no preference’ position.”

The researchers examined the impact of periods of heightened activity by comparing attitudes during each high activity period with attitudes during the 30-day stretch preceding each period. Whites were clearly impacted during these high activity periods, showing decreases in their implicit pro-white attitudes in 4 of the 6 periods, and decreases in their explicit pro-white attitudes in two of the six periods. Blacks showed no change in implicit or explicit attitudes during periods of heightened BLM activity.

The study was based on correlations, and so the researchers took care to rule out other possible factors influencing the findings. The data permitted them to control for changes in the average age, gender, education, political orientation, and Latino ethnicity status of the sample over time. When the researchers compared their sample to a representative national sample, they found it differed somewhat. They adjusted their sample to fit the national profile and their findings still held.

Digging further into the data, the researchers examined the influence of political orientation, thinking perhaps only liberals changed. They found that people all across the political spectrum changed both their implicit and explicit attitudes. The reduction in pro-white bias was greatest among liberals, but nonetheless present as well in conservatives. The researchers point to this finding to suggest that countermovements such as “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” “might have dampened but not reversed the overall effects of BLM.”

Finally, when the researchers examined participants who were neither black or white (e.g. East Asian, South Asian, native American, multiracial), these participants collectively also displayed a reduction in pro-white attitudes. The researchers report that “[f]or all analyses, the strength of effects in pro-White bias reduction for participants of other races fell in between those of whites and blacks.”


In reflecting on the results, the researchers note that the amount of attitude change that took place was fairly small. Nonetheless, the large sample size, in excess of one million participants, and the additional statistical controls the researchers brought to bear, gives confidence that the change was real. They comment that “[t]his study offers the first empirical evidence connecting a social movement to concurrent societal-level changes in implicit and explicit attitudes.”

Altogether, the results of the study suggest the impact of BLM has been to move both blacks and whites toward more egalitarian attitudes, i.e. neither pro-white or pro-black. Notably, implicit attitudes among whites changed to a greater extent than those among blacks. In part this may have been because blacks already were located closer to this egalitarian ideal.

The findings suggest that BLM, and perhaps racial justice movements in general, have not been divisive as some have claimed, but rather have brought people closer together. They also suggest that agitation and confrontation of oppression are an effective pathway towards change.

The degree of explicit attitude change the researchers found was small compared to that measured over the course of the Civil Rights Movement a half-century ago when a sea change took place in societal views on racial equality. But the researchers note that the Civil Rights Movement also achieved legislative and structural changes to society, something which BLM has not, at least to this point. The fact that any measurable change over time was found at all, and that it closely followed the rise and fluctuations of intensity of BLM is encouraging and instructive.

SOURCE: Sawyer, J., & Gampa, A. (2018). Implicit and Explicit Racial Attitudes Changed During Black Lives Matter. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 44(7).