Uncovering Implicit Biases

By Jen Gong ’12, THURJ Staff

Many of us believe we are more impartial than our historic predecessors, whether it be in matters of race, gender or ethnic equality. Landmark achievements like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the end of apartheid or the rise of a black president to the highest office in America might seem like enough reason to believe that humanity’s biases are a thing of the past, at least in the developed world. Recent scientific discoveries, however, suggest that they are not.

Harvard psychology professor Mahzarin Banaji is a leader in the field of implicit social cognition, which investigates what she has termed “implicit biases”- unconscious prejudices that persist even as our explicit attitudes evolve. She is the current Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics and is one of the principal investigators of “Project Implicit.” She is joined in this project by Brian Nosek, from the University of Virginia.

According to Nosek, the goal of Project Implicit is “to understand thoughts and feelings that exist outside of awareness and control.” The project functions as a virtual laboratory, where online visitors can assess their own implicit attitudes using the so-called Implicit Association Test (IAT). The IAT requires subjects to rapidly categorize pairs of stimuli, using differences in response time as an indicator of implicit bias. If, for example, a subject holds an unconscious bias against a certain group, then one would expect the subject to have more difficulty associating positive stimuli with images of that group’s members than with images of members belonging to a preferred group. This difficulty manifests itself in slower response times, making the IAT a reliable indicator of bias.

This technique has been used to explore many forms of prejudice, using group classifications like race, sex, age and religion to expose a myriad of implicit biases. These tests (located online at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/demo/) are an eye-opening experience for many subjects. Since its launch in 1998, over 4.5 million online visitors have completed the web-based version of IAT, generating an immense data set on the prevalence of prejudice. The data yield a clear conclusion: implicit biases not only exist, they are pervasive across large sets of the general population.

Currently, Banaji’s research focuses on how implicit attitudes and preferences first came to be. “We know that many of them are learned by us after we are born…but our minds seem infinitely ready to learn them, for some reason.” This curious “readiness” has led Banaji and her colleagues to conduct studies utilizing young children, as well as adults, in order to look for patterns in the appearance and development of implicit attitudes. They studied children’s explicit attitudes towards certain groups, but also measured their unconscious biases using an IAT. They found that younger children spoke more openly about their preferences, while older children and adults tended to mask their biases with more socially acceptable language. However, “on the IAT, if white American adults are showing a certain level of preference for whites over blacks, then young children in that group are showing the exact same preference.” These IAT data seem to invalidate the assumption “that young kids should not really show some of those biases, because they are still evolving.” In fact, implicit bias is present in what looks to be exactly the same form in children (as young as age 6) as it is in adults. Disturbingly enough, implicit biases may begin to develop at a far younger age than we previously thought.

In addition to trying to understand biases from a developmental perspective, Banaji and her colleagues have begun using neuroimaging techniques to understand how our brain activity varies when we distinguish between different groups of people. Collaborating with her is Jason Mitchell, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology. As Banaji explains, “Most of us feel that we treat people from different groups largely the same, that our minds focus on them in the same way. Our job is to look at how early in the sequence our brains start doing something different when we look at somebody.”

In one of their recent studies, published in the journal Neuron, subjects heard descriptions of people of varying political views and were asked questions about them. The study showed that “many liberals literally use a different set of neurons when they’re thinking about Joe, the liberal, versus Jeff, the conservative.” Most of the questions the researchers asked about the characters did not touch on political beliefs, for example: ‘Do you think he does his laundry every week?’ The neuroimaging data from these studies showed that there was more activity in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) when subjects were asked to make judgments about those with similar political leanings. When they were asked questions about those with dissimilar views, there was more activity in the dorsal mPFC.

This research is clearly relevant to our daily lives, with far-reaching educational and judicial implications. Banaji receives many phone calls about her work – and not just from other psychologists. Individuals in business and law want to know more about these unconscious prejudices because they have the potential to play an integral role in their own jobs. “People don’t know that there is this stuff in their mind that ends up affecting how they treat people,” she explains. “Because their intention is to do the right thing, they become really disturbed when they learn that maybe they’re not acting in the interest of their patient.” Banaji sees these implicit biases as “mental viruses”, analogous to any other illness or physical virus we have discovered. Since everyone is susceptible to implicit bias, Banaji says, “when your role is to be public defender or a social worker, you especially don’t think of yourself as harming anyone. But imagine that you too carry those viruses. Are you really able to do your job as well as you might be able to?”

Scholars are also beginning to recognize the relevance of this research to their own fields. Professor Jerry Kang, from the University of California, Los Angeles Law School, has collaborated with Banaji to explore the ways that such scientific findings should shape the study and practice of law. For example, one collaborative paper addresses affirmative action policy and findings from implicit social cognition that might affect its implementation. “Right now, civil rights and racial justice talk seems to be stuck in the mud,” Kang says.

Rather than utilizing “new philosophical arguments about justice,” perhaps the findings from research into the brain and mind will eventually provide “insurmountable evidence that we are not in fact ‘colorblind’.” While it is true that a growing body of psychology literature is revealing our unconscious tendencies to think about groups of people differently, the important question seems to be whether or not these biases can be changed. Is there a cure for the mental virus?

For Banaji, the answer is a resounding yes: we are adaptable beings, and these implicit biases are not set in stone. She believes there is a “very hopeful message that’s coming from a lot of work: that our systems are highly adaptable, that we are very malleable.” She suggests that a diverse campus like Harvard’s is also a good laboratory in which to test the malleability of our minds. Experiences with different groups of people can challenge our deep-seated biases and, perhaps, begin to change them. “If we’re indeed adaptable, then these simple notions of who’s conservative and who’s liberal will pose for us opportunities to see if our minds can take that kind of leap.”

Thanks to the IAT and similar research endeavors, we are more aware of implicit biases than past generations. So, Banaji asks, “now that we know they exist…will we do with this information what we do with new medical information?” We now “know that there are things happening between us that we can’t see…and that it’s costing our society.” Because we can no longer claim ignorance, she argues, “the standard for us is different.”

The first step towards combating these viruses, Banaji firmly states, is “awareness, awareness, awareness.” Since they operate outside conscious awareness, it is not always easy to acknowledge our biases. But, they are consequential nonetheless, affecting who we marry, befriend, hire or convict.



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