I had the opportunity to hear Mahzarin Banaji speak last year at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio and it was one of the most eye-opening talks I have heard to date. While Mahzarin might not be there when you visit, you can still check out the Open Your Mind: Understanding Implicit Bias exhibit and work to understand your own biases… don’t worry, we all have them.
That concept, of unconscious or implicit bias, is what Mahzarin and her research partner, Anthony Greenwald have been researching for decades, and they have distilled it into a surprisingly easy-to-consume book.
Blindspot: The Hidden Biases of Good People
by Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald
While I know that I cannot do justice to this entire book in one post, I think it breaks down nicely into three concepts—you can, of course, learn more by reading the book yourself, or calling me to chat at length about unconscious bias.
1. Your Brain is Trying to Help
Banaji and Greenwald open the book by introducing the concept of mindbugs. Mindbugs are “ingrained habits of thought that lead to errors in how we perceive, remember, reason, and make decisions.” These mindbugs make associations quickly and without awareness, which originally was a means for survival: ”Our ancestors lived in relatively small, homogeneous groups, surrounded by constand physical danger. In response to the pressures of that environment, they evolved mechanisms that made social choices paramount to mere survival.”
The idea that those who are like us are safe, and those who are unlike us lead to the potential for danger was an evolutionary concept, one that we can (and should) continue to refine over time. But first, we need to acknowledge that the existence of these mindbugs—these biases—are present in us, and in everyone around us. If we can start to recognize them, we can work against them in the situations when they may work against us now that we no longer live in a society where different equals dangerous.
2. It’s Possible to Uncover Your Biases*
*But you may not like what you find. Refer to point 1.
Because so many of our biases are unconscious or implicit, it is impossible to access them through reflection. As a result, self-reporting on personal attitudes on things like race and gender leads to skewed data. Once Banaji and Greenwald recognized this, they set out to create a test that could uncover biases using time-based association of different words and categories. Rather than having me explain the Implicit Association Test, just go take one. Your results may confirm what you already knew, or they may come as a (potentially unpleasant) surprise.
The key to remember here is that while your results may not be what you expected, they are the product of those “ingrained habits of thought” that are created by the environment you grew up in, the media you consume, and the people you spend your time with. Both authors of Blindspot were disappointed by the biases they showed upon taking various tests—even those that went against their stated and known beliefs—and I am no different.
3. Actions Speak Louder than Your Unconscious
I’m not just trying to bum you out, I promise. The upside to understanding your biases is that you can start to work against them. Recognizing the groups that may trigger biases in your mind and the situations in which you might be the most vulnerable to those biases can create opportunities for consideration you may not have been aware of previously.
One way that Banaji and Greenwald cite as a way to “outsmart the machine” is to create rules that help to eliminate opportunities for biases to creep in. You may be familiar with the implementation of “blind” auditions for orchestra hiring—we’ve even heard that this was taken a step further to remove the shoes of candidates to avoid the clip of heels influencing selections. This idea of creating a rule or a guide to eliminate biases is a great step to take when it is possible—consider grading student assessments with names removed or promoting against a rigid set of metrics and requirements. However, this may not always fit the situation.
In the times when we don’t have a guide for our behavior, it can be valuable to simply take a beat to understand and recognize in-group favoritism. The authors use a reference to Dr. Suess’s The Sneetches to outline this idea—no matter how big or small the group, there are always star-belly sneetches and plain-belly sneetches. Bias may come in the form of prejudice or discrimination of the other group (the plain-bellies), or it may simply be providing advantage to the in-group (the star-bellies).
Taking a moment to understand how your actions may play a part in the larger disparity between the groups can start to eliminate the repercussions of the biases that we all carry with us.
All quotes and images have been pulled from Blindspot: The Hidden Biases of Good People by Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald.