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Updated: May 14, 2013 10:18 IST

Making good people feel bad

Vani Saraswathi
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Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People: Mahzarin R. Banaji, Anthony G. Greenwald; Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 599.
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Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People: Mahzarin R. Banaji, Anthony G. Greenwald; Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 599.

This book is the longest I’ve taken to read 209 pages (appendices included), outside of academic curriculum. Not because it was a tedious read, but because of the strong temptation to take every single test associated (implicit.harvard.edu) with the subject of the book, and prove the authors wrong.

Much of what Blind Spot draws reference from is the American socio-political environment. But the ‘Good People’ and the ‘Hidden Biases’ could be from anywhere in the world.

Both the country I am native of and the one I live in are quite oblivious to casual racism. Stereotyping is the norm. And in writing the last two sentences, I have shown a blind spot to the large number of people who can’t be accused of this, thereby justifying why the ‘Good’ folks who are explicitly libertarian need to be conscious of their hidden biases.

In the preface, the authors say: “It is with some trepidation that we refer to “good people” in this book’s subtitle. We have no special competence (let alone the moral authority) to judge (…) we refer to those, ourselves included, who intend well and who strive to align their behaviour with their intentions.”

What Banaji and Greenwald argue is that while biases don’t completely go away (while taking tests both showed biases of white=good and male=math) it is important to be conscious of it, so as to not allow important decisions be marred by our hidden biases. “Our highest aim for this book is to explain the science sufficiently so that these good people will be better able to achieve that alignment.”

Implied Attitude Test

Over a couple of decades of research the authors, who are also collaborators on the testing methodology, have done various versions of IAT (Implied Attitude Test), and it has been used by others to support the premise of their research as well.

Which means, just about every stereotyping or biases one can be accused of can be tested, and often proven.

The authors refer to the blind spot arising from biases as a mindbug, and stress: “In understanding mindbugs, a persuasive reason to take them seriously is self-interest: Stereotypes can negatively affect our action toward ourselves.”

For the Indian reader, more than race or religion, what needs critical understanding is gender stereotype. Doubly reinforced by a strong patriarchal system. The whole male=science/maths, female=arts (is the low female enrolment at IIT a self-fulfilling prophecy?) is just the tip of the gender stereotyping iceberg.

An argument that I’ve often made (based on personal experience and not research, though) is that students of all-girls school grow up with fewer stereotypes. When the key influencers in all spheres are women, and when you compete on merit without gender playing a role in it, stereotypes are weakened. Which is what studies that used the IATs have revealed.

Disassociation

Much of our biases are a result of the difference between two facets of our mind: the reflective and the automatic. It is inexplicable to us, how our conscious mind expresses a well-thought-out preference, but the automatic side of our mind makes assumptions to the contrary. “Every day, automatic preferences steer us toward less conscious decisions, but they are hard to explain because they remain impervious to the probes of conscious motivation.”

This disassociation — ‘the occurrence, in one and the same mind, of mutually inconsistent ideas that remain isolated from one another’ — manifests itself in the best of us. The Good People.

What the book and the IATs wish to do is help people “understand hidden biases and, if desired, to neutralise them before they translate into behaviour.”

Why this would not be an easy task is because there is also a need for the mind to categorise or stereotype. The authors quote Gordon Allport (The Nature of Prejudice, 1954): “The human mind must think with the aid of categories … Once formed, categories are the basis for normal prejudgment. We cannot possibly avoid this process. Orderly living depends on it.”

Which probably explains the unconscious in-group preferences of even those who mean no malice to the out-group. And this was true for even groups formed on the flimsiest of grounds (in a study) let alone those that have deeper roots like religion, gender, and of course, race.

The struggle now is to accept that we possess stereotypes, but strive to not apply it.

Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People; Mahzarin R. Banaji, Anthony G. Greenwald; Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 599.

(Vani Saraswathi is a Qatar-based Indian journalist)

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