Whether we know it or not, we all harbor biases against others and even ourselves, according to the authors of Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. But wait, you may be thinking, certainly I’m not prejudiced! Alas, results of research by Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald suggest that even the most egalitarian-minded people can show bias for their “group” over others. This hard-wired prejudice evolved as a means of survival, say Banaji and Greenwald. But in a modern world that now values cooperation over competition, their research is working to find ways to “outsmart the machine” in our heads.
Blindspot delves into this fascinating research and includes experiments you can do yourself that measure your own subconscious biases in areas like gender and race. (You can also take the tests—called Implicit Association Tests—online as part of Project Implicit.) We jumped at the chance to ask the authors more about his mind-bending research. Here’s what they had to say:
Books for Better Living: What is one of the most surprising things you learned from doing this research and writing this book?
Banaji and Greenwald: The big surprise in Blindspot is the discovery of a discrepancy or split between our attitudes and beliefs as we consciously and deliberately state them, and the more automatic attitudes and beliefs revealed by the Implicit Association Test. For example, we the authors, believe that men and women should be equally associated to “career” but our own test results indicate that our automatic mind associates “career” more strongly with men than women. This is both surprising and disconcerting to us!
BBL: Is it accurate to blame our so-called “mindbugs” on evolution alone?
B&G: As scientists, we look for causes of our behavior in all possible locations. There’s never a question of “blaming.” Our minds are prepared to learn and act on information we have learned. This learning includes learning, both accurate and inaccurate, about people and groups in the form of stereotypes and preferences.
But evolutionary forces are not the only ones at play. Our culture and local environment offer up experiences that dictate the content of what we learn; these then become our own beliefs and preferences, e.g., that rap music is terrific or that rap music is terrible.
BBL: What kinds of reactions have you had from people who believe they are not biased but whose scores show that they have a strong automatic preference for certain groups over others. (For example, white people who claim not to be prejudiced against black people, but who score high on your test.)
B&G: People’s responses differ quite a lot. They range from intrigue and fascination with the discovery of their bias, to feeling disturbed and even denying the validity of the test result. But as knowledge about the test and the hundreds of scholarly papers that have now appeared increases, acceptance of automatic stereotype and preferences is also increasing. We get proportionally more questions about how to handle the existence of race-based and other biases rather than questions about whether or not they exist.
BBL: You make the case that helping someone within your own group can indirectly discriminate against other groups (i.e. writing a letter of recommendation for someone in your “group” hurts the chances of someone from another group get that spot). How can we still be helpful in ways that won’t have negative indirect consequences? Should we all just stop helping others?
B&G: There are few acts we perform that are more prosocial than the act of helping another person or a group of people. We would very much hope that our discussion in Blindspot stimulates thinking about whom to help, how to help, and how to help more. On some dimensions of helping, we will almost certainly only be able to help those who are near us, physically and emotionally. For example, helping to carry a physical load is likely limited to those who are around us. Feeding an infant is still likely to be an activity performed by those who love that particular baby. But the charities we support, and even the people we volunteer to write letters of support for, and a host of other consequential acts of helping need not target just those we know and love. If desired, a conscious decision can be made, even in opposition to what our first and natural inclination may be, to lend support where we believe it is most needed.
BBL: Many times, you’ve found that people’s biases undermine their own best interests (i.e. women aren’t good at math). Once you expose something like that in yourself are there any proven ways to overcome or change those biases?
B&G: This is a good question and one to which we wish we could provide an answer that is based on even more research than is currently available. We do not underestimate the difficulty of changing behavior, even when the new behavior is obviously in our own interest. For example, we know full well the salutary effects of physical exercise on health, but how many of us are able to implement the behavior consistently and continuously? On the other hand, there are behaviors that are modified, and where the new behavior becomes second nature or the default behavior (such as the act of putting on a seat belt). The next generation of research will surely give us useful information about what works to help us modify behavior based on recognition of what lies in our blindspots. We remain optimistic because human beings are adaptive, and part of that adaptability is a continuous, even if reluctant, movement toward improvement of ourselves.
BBL: This book raises many more questions than it answers. What are some of the questions you’re working to answer next?
B&G: You’ve picked up on many of the important issues in your questions already! We answer this particular question at our website spottheblindspot.com in the following way:
One area is women’s roles in the workplace, where subtle discrimination occurs more often in the form of favoritism than outright hostility, where gender stereotypes still affect women’s career paths, and where implicit attitudes might have something to do with why women still can’t have it all). Other areas include:
· The formation of implicit attitudes and stereotypes in children
· The involvement of race attitudes in medicine, business, and politics (e.g., voting)
· The importance of ingroup favoritism in workplace discrimination
· The role of power and status in exacerbating and reducing biases
· The modifiability of hidden biases
Mahzarin R. Banaji is Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard University, and Anthony G. Greenwald is a professor of psychology at the University of Washington. You can learn more about their research at Project Implicit.