October 1st, 2013

Experts weigh in on unconscious bias

In the wake of the Trayvon Martin case, Americans have found ourselves asking some very difficult questions. Beyond the facts of that night, a young African-American boy leaves his house to buy candy and a drink, is followed by a neighborhood watch volunteer who later shoots and kills the unarmed teenager, are the underlying themes that have dogged our country for centuries. In a world where all are ostensibly created equal, are some more equal than others? Do some have more rights to move about, to guard their properties, to defend themselves, to simply exist, than others?

For most of us, we like to think we are evolved enough to see beyond the color of someone’s skin or their gender, age, social standings or weight. Studies have found, however, that some of our unconscious responses to our differences belie our surface egalitarianism.

New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter spoke with two experts with experience in the area of unconscious bias. Mahzarin R. Banaji, Ph.D., the Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard University, wrote a book, “Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People” that has raised some ire with its claim that we are all biased under the surface. John Dovidio, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Yale University, has done research in the area for more than 35 years and is the principal investigator at the Yale Intergroup Relations Lab.

Q: What does the research in this area show?

A: Mahzarin Banaji: Research shows that even well-intentioned people, like myself, who believe in treating people fairly, in relying on who a person is to make decisions rather than the group the person came from, even those people are likely to react in biased ways.

John Dovidio: Many people who have expressed attitudes that seem to be egalitarian still have unconscious negative biases.

MB: A test done by the National Academy in 2012 showed that a research committee will choose a male over a female for a job and rate the male as more competent even when they are given the exact same data for each.

More surprising is that even the people who should be less biased, the women, still choose the male.

JD: Early research showed that most white Americans will help a black or white victim equally if they are the sole witness. If you insert any doubt, lead them to believe that someone else could intervene, they found that they would only help the black person half as often. When asked, they will say that they assumed that someone else did. 

Q: Would blacks also be less likely to help whites? Does it go both ways? 

A: JD: The summary does show some in-group bias, favoritism for your own group, but it is much more pronounced for whites towards blacks in terms of negative responses. We may favor our own group but we also grow up in a society that is saying that one group is better. Those two things work together if you are white – and they tend to mitigate some of the in-group favoritism if you are black. Even the blacks learn negative biases towards blacks.

Q: In the Trayvon Martin case, this was an unarmed teenager out for a walk to the store. How could this evolve into such a tragic scenario?

A: JD: One of the strongest cultural associations that is prevalent in our society is the association of black men with violence. That association occurs across different backgrounds and ages and permeates the culture and the more you get exposed to these associations, the more it develops biases. We automatically stereotype black men with being violent and threatening.

There is a whole set of studies called shooter bias – people play a computer game with images of black or white men holding an object, a gun or a knife or it could be a comb or a wallet. The task is to decide quickly to shoot or not shoot the person. They found that the average person is more likely to shoot a black person and not shoot a white person erroneously. It is hard to train people not to do that. With very extensive training, police officers have less of that bias but studies show police can still have it as well.

A lot of that maps onto the case we are talking about. He [Zimmerman] was feeling threatened and that he had to protect himself which he admitted to and the average person has a tendency to pull a trigger faster if a person is black.

MB: It’s a difficult situation when we interact with people in any circumstance, but where we have to make a decision fast, we don’t always have the mental resources to override those instincts.

Q: Do you think we, as a society, have learned (or should learn) something from this case?

A: JD: I would like to move the conversation away from George Zimmerman because many good people could behave this way. We need to move it towards the laws.  

We should question laws that allow feeling threatened to be a factor that can mitigate guilt. If we automatically feel more threatened in our society towards certain groups, it will always allow us to make these rash judgments against those same people. 

The law should punish bad behavior. Otherwise, all the good people with good intentions who do bad things are free to go and it will be okay to give whites advantages over blacks in these situations, which will perpetuate an inequitable society.

MB: If you were to try to make a situation in which unconscious biases could be exposed you could not do better than the Stand Your Ground law. It is the perfect recipe for bias not just to happen but to turn into action. 

The law basically says in those moments when you encounter someone you feel is a threat, you can do anything and not be held responsible. We can’t pretend not to have the same thoughts and feelings that George Zimmerman had but if you live in a state without these laws and where it is not easy to have a weapon, it would not have the same impact. Decisions based on biases can lead to poor outcomes and this law gives the legal right to act on impulse. 

Q: Aside from this tragedy, is our society getting any better? 

A: MB: In the Trayvon Martin case, my observation was that I heard many more American parents say, “This could have been my child.’’ I think that is a marker of how much we’ve changed. In the past, if a young black man was killed, not many whites would be able to traverse things like age, class, race, even the region of the country to identify with him. 

I believe things are truly changing at the level of our conscious minds, how willing we are to treat people fairly. What hasn’t changed enough is in the way we unconsciously see people. 

JD: What will change things in our society will be a culture that says being biased based on race is bad and more people being taught that. Things are getting better but I wouldn’t rely on it to just happen. It is still what we do culturally that will determine if things will get better or not.  

By Catherine Robertson Souter

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