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Psychology

We’re All Bigots (To A Degree): Understanding Stereotypes and Hidden Biases

In a recent interview, businessman Mark Cuban received criticism for saying, “If I see a black kid in a hoodie at night … on the same side of the street, I’m probably going to walk to the other side of the street.” He also noted that he would do the same if he saw a white guy with a lot of tattoos. He apologized, saying he should have used a different example, but ultimately owned up to his mistake and drew the line where it had to be drawn. “I think we’re all bigots. I don’t think there’s any question about that.”

I agree, Mr. Cuban. It takes a level of self-awareness to admit something like that, to stand up for what was said, but ultimately to have the understanding that what was said was not racist at all.

Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald, professors and authors of Blindspots: Hidden Biases of Good People, explores the hidden biases that we carry throughout our lives. These hidden biases are influenced by culture, age, gender, sex, religion, social class, nationality, and more. Of all the topics that I’ve studied in psychology, this one fascinated me the most, next to self-justification, which happens to connect beautifully with this subject. The nature and understanding of stereotypes is a topic that’s rarely talked about, its findings not spread wide enough, but has such immense potential to change the cultural language.

We will go into the nature of stereotypes, hidden biases, and why we’re all prejudice to a certain degree—how culture has played such a profound role in the way we lead our lives and size people up. This knowledge should provide some awareness, and in turn, possible behavioral change. Above all, it should influence us to critically rethink our beliefs in being fair, honest people.

What is a hidden bias? Banaji and Greenwald explain:

“They are—for a lack of a better term—bits of knowledge 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 toward members of particular social groups, but we remain oblivious to their influence.”

Banaji and Greenwald created a new way to look into our blindspots (the metaphor they use to explain hidden biases). With their colleague Brian Nosek, they developed the Implicit Association Test (IAT):

“Its effectiveness 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. For flowers and insects, this stored mental content is most likely to help you put flowers together with pleasant words while interfering with your pairing flowers with unpleasant words. Similarly, it will likely be easier for you to connect insects with unpleasant words and harder to connect them with pleasant words.”

They share an example of Malcolm Gladwell, famous author of The Tipping Point and many others, talking about his results on Oprah’s show:

“Listen to the writer Malcolm Gladwell, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, reporting his candid response to taking the Race IAT: I took it for the first time, and it told me that I had a moderate preference for White people. . . . I was biased—against Black people, toward White People, which horrified me because my mom’s Jamaican. . . . The person in my life who I love more than almost anyone else is Black, and here I was taking a test, which said, frankly, I wasn’t too crazy about Black people, you know? So, I did what anyone else would do: I took the test again! Maybe it was an error, right? Same result. Again, same result, and it was this creepy, dispiriting, and devastating moment.

This IAT Test shows how culture plays a major role in our hidden biases and how it constantly influences our thinking and behavior:

“Part of what the IAT tells us when it reveals hidden biases, whether about the elderly, dark-skinned people, or gay people, is that the membrane that divides the culture ‘out there’ from our mind ‘in here’ is permeable. Whether we want them to or not, the attitudes of the culture at large infiltrate us. As was true of the gay activist described earlier, even those engaged in a fight for the rights of their stigmatized group are affected by the constant negative input from the culture. A preference for the young among the elderly is further evidence that the outside ends up inside the mind. Our minds pick up a lot of what’s out there, and it seems nearly impossible to resist the pull toward culturally rooted stereotypes.”

At the heart of this is our nature: we are social animals; we care about how others perceive us; we care about belonging and connection. What the IAT does is also reveal our conscious, rational thoughts and our automatic mind. Greenwald and Banaji explains this psychological concept:

“The word that psychologists use to capture these cracks in the system is dissociation, which encompasses so many of humankind’s contradictory attitudes and behaviors that it ranks among psychology’s most powerful concepts. Here’s a definition: Dissociation is the occurrence, in one and the same mind, of mutually inconsistent ideas that remain isolated from one another. More specifically, in the context of this book, the mutually inconsistent ideas we are interested in are those that are the product of our reflective and rational mind, on one hand, and our automatic or intuitive mind, on the other. It is this barrier between conscious and unconscious, reflective and automatic, that the IAT was designed to reveal, and it has help up its end of the bargain effectively.”

So if you’re reading this and saying, No, this can’t be me. I am assess people fairly and without bias, I’d like for you to take the IAT test and see the results for yourself.

The nature of stereotypes

Asians are good at math. African Americans are good at sports. Brazilians are good at soccer. Irish people drink a lot. Most surgeons are males and most desk clerks are females.

We’ve all heard these before to some degree or another. To some extent it may be true, but are these realities a result of deeply embedded cultural stereotypes? These “automatic stereotypes” are hard to remove and easy to pin. Greenwald and Banaji explains the nature of stereotypes and how culture, again, plays a firm role:

“It is difficult to fathom what it even means to have an automatic stereotype, that is, a belief about a social group that we possess but don’t personally endorse or even approve of. But our minds have been shaped by the culture around us. In fact, they have been invaded by it.
[…]
We would agree that we possess these stereotypes because we’ve been repeatedly exposed to the relevant propaganda in images, in stories, in jokes, in ordinary language, and in the indifferences that pervade social space.”

“Stereotypes do not take special effort to acquire. Quite the opposite—they are acquired effortlessly, and take special effort to discount. Discounting stereotypes is not easy, because of the value of the general mental processes into which stereotypic thinking is embedded. The same mental abilities that allow us to perceive and categorize appropriately, that are necessary for us to learn and understand, and that make us successful at detecting and recognizing, are also the abilities that can lead us astray.”

They provide a fascinating example, one that even tricked me:

“A father and his son are in a car accident. The father dies at the scene and the son, badly injured, is rushed to the hospital. In the operating room, the surgeon looks at the boy and says, ‘I can’t operate on this boy. He is my son.’ How can this be? (Continue reading when you either have an answer or conclude that you have none.)

If your immediate reaction is puzzlement, that’s because automatic mental associations caused you to think ‘male’ on reading ‘surgeon.’ The association surgeon = male is part of a stereotype. In this riddle, that stereotype works as the first piece of a mindbug. The second piece is an error in judgement—in this case a failure to delay in figuring out that the surgeon must be the boy’s mother.”

Our brains are pattern-seeking machines. We categorize, almost like a filing cabinet, so that it requires less effort for us to think and make decisions. This becomes our worldview. So if you fell for the trap and didn’t even consider the surgeon being a female, it just goes to show how deeply embedded our biases are due the kind of cultural messages we embrace—through advertising, media, television, etc.

Banaji and Greenwald reveal the results of their IAT Test regarding black = weapon—over 80,000 tests taken. Sadly, I’m not surprised by the results:

“However, as data from many respondents show, 70 percent or more of the people who take this test have greater difficulty with Sheet B, which pairs Whites with weapons, than with Sheet A, which pairs Blacks with weapons. Analyses of more than eighty thousand race-weapons IATS completed at implicit.harvard.edu yielded three important results:

First, the automatic Black = weapons association is much stronger among all groups who took the test—White, Asian, Hispanic, and even African American—than is suggested by surveys that asked questions about this association. Second, the size of this automatic stereotype varies noticeably by groups—it is largest in Whites and Asians, next largest in Hispanics, and the smallest in African Americans. But even African Americans show a modest black=weapons stereotype.

Third, comparing the results of the two kinds of tests—reflective self-report and automatic stereotype— reveals another interesting fact about who carries the stereotype. The higher the education level, the lower the endorsement of the association between Blacks and weapons on the reflective self-report answers. However, on the test of automatic stereotypes, the IAT, education levels not a whit. Those with greatest education carry as strong an implicit Black = weapons stereotype as do those with least education.”

So what I constantly ask is why? Why is this a reality? Is it due to evolution and how African Americans were treated all throughout history? What’s the pattern here? There are so many dots that need to be connected to produce an understanding of why this is the way it is. (If you have any resources on this, please share them; I’d love to do further studying on this.)

What really boggled my mind was a study on how stereotypes are the source of self-undermining motivation. But it makes perfect sense: what we believe is such a powerful source of motivation or lack thereof. It truly dictates how we live. The findings in this study should ring some alarms and make us question our beliefs about our abilities:

“John Jost, a psychologist at New York University, has suggested that, contrary to that expectation, people in fact are willing to sacrifice their self-interest for the sake of maintaining the existing social order. His experiments have shown that we do cognitive and emotional work to justify the hierarchies that make up the status quo, even when that means imposing costs on ourselves as well as on the groups to which we belong. Because automatic stereotypes often work to perpetuate the prevailing system, no matter what its flaws, we see Jost’s research as further evidence of the self-undermining nature of automatic stereotypes.

Jost has gathered an array of evidence that show that members of disadvantaged groups play a perplexing role in maintaing their own disadvantage through their acceptance of self-undermining stereotypes. Examples of system justification are found in the poor who believe themselves to be unintelligent and therefore less deserving of resources; Asian Americans who believe that they may be good with numbers but should stay out of leadership roles in public life; women who believe that they are not suited to high paying jobs and so don’t apply for them or negotiate appropriately; and men who believe that they don’t have the talent for caregiving jobs and consequently staying away from parenting or careers that could be gratifying.”

It’s incredibly frightening and sad in how much culture and propaganda influences how we lead our lives—how these bits of information relayed in media can profoundly influence culture, without hesitation or questioning.

Lastly, how does a stereotype start?:

“The use of language to establish identity was nicely demonstrated in a recent study led by Andy Baron at Harvard University. In his study, three- to five-year-olds were shown pictures of two groups of cartoon characters, one colored purple, the other red. One group did rotten things such as break toys and cause car crashes, while the other did nice things such as help others. If children merely saw these differently colored and differently behaving characters, they didn’t seem to assign them a group identity. But if they were given names for the two groups (‘These are the Nifs,’ ‘These are the Lups’) they quickly figured out who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. In order words, at that age, the difference in the appearance of the two sets of characters (purple versus red) were not automatically seen as cues to group membership. But once the groups had names, the children became aware of the differences between them and understood that they belonged in different categories. This is the beginning of stereotyping.”

***

Blindspots is a great read and deeply insight. It is filled with rich examples, studies, and insights. I would call it a must-read because stereotyping and hidden biases are indeed a major part of our lives. It influences the way we interact with one another, in our workplace to our homes to a simple stroll down the street. In the book jacket the first two sentences say: “I know my own mind. I am able to assess others in a fair and accurate way.” After reading this book and taking the IAT test myself, it’s not difficult to admit how deluded that statement is not just on an individual level but also for society. The question is, how do we change these deeply rooted stereotypes? Have they run their course for too long? Is the only panacea is to teach individuals to think for themselves, to question and challenge everything? Even after writing this post and finishing the book, it’s incredibly sad how little I know about these mental anchors but how profoundly they influence the way I lead my life. Perhaps the best way is to develop a rich, deep understanding on these subjects and exercise them in our daily lives.

— PAUL JUN