Do you think you know your own mind? Do you imagine yourself able to make decisions and interact with others in a fair and balanced manner, unfettered by personal bias?
Authors Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald contend almost all of us base our daily interactions on personal biases, many of which we don’t even know we have. Like the dead zone in a car that the rearview mirror doesn’t cover, these biases exist behind our conscious thought in a personal “blindspot.”
“What are the hidden biases of this book’s title? They are — for lack of a better term — bits of knowledge (sic) about social groups. These bits of knowledge are stored in our brains because we encounter them so frequently in our cultural environments. Once lodged in our minds, hidden biases can influence our behavior towards members of particular social groups, but we remain oblivious to their influence.”
For more than 30 years, the authors have researched and studied how the mind operates in social contexts. As collaborators — Banaji at Harvard University and Greenwald at the University of Washington — the pair have been working to find ways to identify people’s true biases. By helping people identify hidden biases, they hope to allow others to make decisions in a more rational, thoughtful manner instead of the haphazard way most of us go about it.
Many of the revelations in “Blindspot” are both surprising and profound. For example, when studying humans tendency to discriminate, the authors observe that “group identity abhors a vacuum. Create an arbitrary connection between a person and a group and provide the mere suggestion that there are others who lack this connection to self, and the psychology of ‘us’ and ‘them’ rushes in to fill the void. Lines are drawn, whether or not the basis for the groups makes any sense, and discrimination follows.”
To identify biases, Banaji and Greenwald developed something called an “Implicit Association Test.” Respondents are asked to sort through two lists, alternately associating test items with good words and then bad ones. For example, to test a person’s biases for or against black people, the authors set up a test where subjects had to quickly sort through two lists. The first list associated a series of black children’s faces with unpleasant words like “disaster,” “rotten” and “hatred;” white children’s faces were to be associated with pleasant words like “peace,” “lucky” and “honest.” Then the process was reversed: The black children were associated with the good words and the white children with the bad. In test after test, the authors have found those with biases against black people complete the first list far more quickly and with many fewer errors, but take longer with the second list, when young black people are matched with positive words.
The key is the speed with which one is supposed to complete the tests. If given time to think about it, our conscious thought processes skew the results to hide our biases. However, when done quickly, the results are disturbingly close to the mark.
Like most good teachers, the authors’ fascination with why our minds display hidden biases is infectious. “The mind is an automatic association machine. When it encounters any information — words, pictures, or even complex ideas — related information automatically comes to mind. Unthinkingly we use that shared theme as we try to remember the past and, in so doing, stumble easily.” As the authors go on to observe this “flaw” in the way we process information, it produces results that are often bizarre, as in the UW study that proved that hidden biases “can be powerful enough to produce a greater recollection of things that didn’t occur than of things that did occur.”
Through the inclusion of modern examples of bias towards race, gender, sexual orientation and even ageism, Banaji and Greenwald hammer home the idea that unconscious stereotypes and biases can be truly harmful, not only for others, but also for ourselves: “Much of what we read, see in movies and television shows, and absorb through advertising campaigns targeted at the older generation focuses on their deficits and woes, loneliness and isolation, poor health, weak bodies, fading looks, diminished sensory capabilities, incontinence, impotence, memory problems, dementia, Alzheimer’s and so on. No wonder the Beatles asked, ‘will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?’”
“Blindspot” is a well-researched and well written book. If you are looking for a provocative exploration into the science of human behavior — one that’s chock full of insights and will make you question how you think — I highly recommend this book. If, however, you have no desire to explore your own behavior or that of others, if you are happy believing that you are totally impartial and unbiased, then by all means give it a pass. That’s the thing about people, I guess. Some are content to go on believing that their rearview mirror gives them an adequate picture of life. While others turn their heads and look behind them ... just in case.