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Most of Us Are Biased, After All

Twentieth Century Fox/Everett Collection
Gregory Peck, far left, as a journalist who goes undercover as a Jew for an exposé on anti-Semitism in Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement, 1947. Also pictured are Celeste Holm, John Garfield, and Robert Karnes.

In his ill-fated attempt to win a Senate seat in 1858, Abraham Lincoln squared off against the incumbent, Democrat Stephen Douglas, in a series of seven debates that centered on the issue of slavery. Lincoln, of course, was the candidate in favor of equal treatment under the law for the black populace. Here is an excerpt from those debates, in which Lincoln reveals his feelings about black people themselves, aligning himself as much as possible with the political correctness of his time:

There is a physical difference between the white and black races which will ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together, there must be the position of superior & inferior. I am as much as any other man in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.

This doesn’t sound like the man who freed the slaves, but Lincoln didn’t see an inconsistency in advocating for civil rights while holding a belief in white supremacy. As he put it, “I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything.”1

Today, of course, things are different. Today we have a president whose father was black, and remarks that are taken to indicate racial, ethnic, or gender bigotry can cause great damage to a public figure’s career, for example former Harvard president Lawrence Summers, radio host Don Imus, Nobel Prize winner James Watson, actor Mel Gibson, radio talk show host Laura Schlessinger, news analyst Juan Williams, and comedian Michael Richards. Yet our society still exhibits a stubborn tendency to discriminate, not just on the basis of race, but also gender, religion, ethnic group, and body weight, just to name a few. If open statement of prejudice by well-known people provokes immediate public disapproval, privately held contempt can be pervasive and strong.

In their new book, Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, social psychologists Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald examine the nature of today’s social biases, and the difficulty we face in erasing them. The authors’ central point is that most of us are biased toward various groups. Moreover, though some of us are aware of being prejudiced, and some of us publicly express bigoted views, the authors assert that far more of us hold prejudices seated in a deep level of our minds that is inaccessible to our conscious awareness. The attitudes lurking in that blind spot, they say, have an important part in perpetuating discrimination.

Banaji’s and Greenwald’s view aligns the study of prejudice with a larger movement that has transformed academic psychology in recent years. “A quarter century ago,” as the authors put it,

most psychologists believed that human behavior was primarily guided by conscious thoughts and feelings. Nowadays the majority will readily agree that much of human judgment and behavior is produced with little conscious thought.

Banaji and Greenwald attribute this revolution in psychology to new research methods aimed at revealing mental processes that are said to be beyond the reach of personal introspection. With regard to our understanding of bias, the most telling of these is the Implicit Association Test, or IAT, first described in a 1998 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The authors have based Blindspot on data drawn from the IAT. They know the test well: it was Greenwald himself who invented it.

The field of psychology as we know it today arose from the work of people like Wilhelm Wundt, who, in 1879, was denied German government funding for the first laboratory of psychology, but started one anyway, in a small classroom; and William James, who, around the same time, set up an informal psychology laboratory in two basement rooms of Lawrence Hall at Harvard. They and other pioneers debated the function and importance of the unconscious, but while Freud took that idea and ran with it in his clinical work, scientific psychology soon grew to largely ignore the unconscious in favor of mental processes of which we are well aware. Thus, Banaji and Greenwald tell us, when psychologists began studying discrimination in the 1920s, they did it by asking people directly about their prejudices.

The questionnaires were not subtle. One study, developed by psychologist E.D. Hinckley, introduced a psychological tool called the “Attitude Toward the Negro” scale. In that study, Hinckley asked his subjects to indicate whether they agreed or disagreed with thirty-two statements. Banaji and Greenwald don’t reveal any of the results but the statements themselves reveal much about prejudices in American culture at that time. For example, statement number six: “The feeble-mindedness of the Negro limits him to a social level just a little above that of the higher animals.”

Observing the clear pictures Americans seemed to have regarding the nature of people they had never met, in 1922 Walter Lippmann co-opted the term “stereotype” from the printing business. In printing it referred to a process by which multiple metal plates were created, enabling the mass printing of newspapers and books on several presses at once. For human psychology, it was, as he explained, a way of dealing with complexity. “The real environment is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance,” he wrote. “And although we have to act in that environment, we have to reconstruct it on a simpler model before we can manage with it.”2 That simpler model is the stereotype.

The “recognized starting point for modern understanding of stereotypes,” the authors tell us, was Gordon Allport’s 1954 book The Nature of Prejudice. Allport wrote: “The human mind must think with the aid of categories…. Once formed, categories are the basis for normal prejudgment. We cannot possibly avoid this process. Orderly living depends upon it.”3

Imagine what life would be like if we didn’t categorize, if we treated each chair, each apple, each taxi we encountered as an individual, a blank slate whose character and purpose we had to decipher anew. We wouldn’t get very far, nor would we have lasted long on the ancient savannah if we paused to consider the intentions of each individual lion we encountered. Instead, once we’ve seen a single lion eat a human, we form a prejudice against the entire species.

The problems that occur when a human mind fails to see the world in categories were sadly and perhaps uniquely dramatized by the case of a shopkeeper in London in the 1980s who had a stroke that affected the lower part of his occipital lobe. His motor skills and cognitive function seemed unimpaired, except in one respect: if shown two objects that had the same function, such as two brooms or two beer mugs, he failed to associate them. As a result he had great difficulties in everyday life, even when attempting simple tasks such as setting the table, or when reading—for deciphering the printed word involves an understanding that a and A, though different, are in some sense identical.4

Lippmann recognized that although shortcuts are useful, even necessary, when applied to people, stereotypes can be dangerous. Today, many polls report that Americans are in favor of a tolerant society in which people are judged on their merits, and think it is wrong to assess people according to the social and ethnic categories to which they belong.5 Why then does discrimination based on class and ethnicity appear to be endemic in American society?

The authors’ answer is that biases that are often hidden influence our judgments and actions in many of the situations that we typically encounter in life. Such biases are so prevalent, they assert, that even people who in their conscious thoughts abhor prejudices commonly hold them—so prevalent, even, that members of negatively stereotyped groups are commonly biased against their own social group.

One example Banaji and Greenwald offer concerns race: they report that about 75 percent of Americans have an unconscious, automatic preference for whites over blacks. A similar percentage, they say, are prone to stereotype by gender. And significant numbers also show bias with regard to “sexual orientation, and age as well as body weight, height, disability, and nationality.”

Though their research on prejudice has been accepted by many psychologists, Banaji and Greenwald are aware that many people may be skeptical of their claims. “The influence of Freud notwithstanding,” they admit, “it is hard for human beings, endowed with the capacity for conscious thought, to accept that the beliefs and preferences that so define us can be shaped by forces outside our awareness.” The evidence that the unconscious associations they speak of do exist comes from Greenwald’s IAT. To date, Greenwald and his colleagues have administered the test over 14 million times through the Internet (you can take it at implicit.harvard.edu/implicit).

After introducing us to the idea of unconscious bias, the middle chapters of Blindspot are something of a hodgepodge in which the authors describe the IAT and the significance of what it tells us. In all those chapters, we never stray far from a discussion of the IAT. To get a feeling for the test, imagine holding a deck of cards face up and sorting the cards as quickly as you can into two piles, with hearts and diamonds on the left, and clubs and spades on the right. Now imagine repeating the task, this time placing hearts and spades on the left, and diamonds and clubs on the right.

It is probably no surprise that if you actually performed these two tasks, it would take you longer to get through the second one. That’s because you naturally make a mental association between diamonds and hearts, and between clubs and spades, based on their colors. That is the basis of the IAT—you can sort things faster if you are sorting them in a manner consistent with your mental associations than if you are sorting them against dispositions you have already acquired. As Banaji and Greenwald put it, the effectiveness of the IAT “relies on the fact that your brain has stored years of past experiences that you cannot set aside when you do the IAT’s sorting tasks.”

In the race version of the Implicit Association Test, you are asked to sort a mix of recognizably African-American and European faces, along with a mix of pleasant (“gentle,” “heaven”) and unpleasant (“hurt,” “anguish”) words. You are told to sort the European faces and unpleasant words to the left, say, and the African-American faces and pleasant words to the right—as quickly as possible. You are then asked to sort them again, this time with the European faces and pleasant words to one side, and the African-American faces and unpleasant words to the other. If you find the first task is more difficult (and thus takes more time), then, just as you associate red with diamonds and hearts, so, too, do you associate African-Americans with unpleasantness. It is the comparative timing of the two tasks that is telling. Since developing the race IAT, Greenwald has developed IATs that probe attitudes toward many other social groups.

  1. 1

    See The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy P. Basler (Abraham Lincoln Association/Rutgers University Press, 1953), Vol. 3, pp. 248, 146. 

  2. 2

    Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (Harcourt Brace, 1922) p. 16. 

  3. 3

    Gordon W. Allport, The Nature of Prejudice (Addison-Wesley, 1954), p. 20. 

  4. 4

    Rosaleen A. McCarthy and Elizabeth K. Warrington, “Visual Associative Agnosia: A Clinico-Anatomical Study of a Single Case,” Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry, Vol. 49 (1986). See also Leonard Mlodinow, Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior (Pantheon, 2012), Chapter 7. 

  5. 5

    See, for example, Jeffrey M. Jones, “Most in US Say Gay/Lesbian Bias Is a Serious Problem,” Gallup Politics, December 6, 2012, and “Americans: Racial Discrimination Still a Big Problem,” NPR, July 1, 2009. 

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