Hooray, it’s time for another in my series of reviews of books on unconscious bias. I had to give this one five stars, because I learned so dang much from Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People, by the thoughtful, introspective, and extra-scientific duo Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald (Tony) (2013). I’m not sure why, but even though the conclusion of the book is that it’s pretty much ingrained in us to be biased, and we can’t stop it, I felt encouraged in the end.
First of all, I just want to go shake the hands of the authors, who you really get to know while reading Blind Spot, because they very openly share their own experiences and reactions to research. They speak as one, but refer to each other in the third person, like “Mahzarin is hard on herself because of this,” or “Tony can’t keep from shaking his head” when they want to stress individual experiences. I enjoyed that technique.
Also these two are extra famous in their field. They INVENTED the IAT Test (Implicit Association Test, found on the Project Implicit website) that is used around the world to measure unconscious bias in all sorts of respects (racial, gender, age, religion, etc.). They are also amazing researchers in social psychology and back up everything they say with lots of data. In fact, about a third of the book consists of fascinating appendixes, like “Is America Racist?” that answered a lot of my questions on this topic.
It’s a lot of fun to read Blind Spot, especially if you go and take the tests when prompted. You get a real education in your own biases, and when it turns out you exhibit a white = good bias, you feel a little better when the authors admit they have it, too, and repeatedly taking the tests even when they KNOW what it’s testing didn’t change the results. You can’t change what’s hard-wired in your brain, but you CAN work to mitigate it.
And that’s what fascinated me. After the authors painstakingly show how many biases we share (and that many groups show bias against themselves, thanks to the society they grow up in), they do talk about how things HAVE changed. The data is showing that younger people exhibit markedly less of the stereotyped biases than did their grandparents.
I was really interested in the research that showed how early babies learn to distinguish their own cultural group from another, showing preferences for their mother’s race VERY early. What gave me hope? Exposure to other races when very young strongly lessened future bias. HUH!
Another thing that Blind Spot goes over is that we need our stereotypes so that we can function in society. We have to be able to make decisions quickly, and going on past experience is actually very helpful much of the time. They talked about how you may have stereotypes about women, blacks, Muslim, professors, and lesbians, for example. That will lump large groups of people into one generic type. But, if you picture one person with all those traits, you would end up picturing someone much more distinctive.
It appears that I could go on at length, but I don’t want to tell you everything that’s in this book. I want you to read it, think critically about its findings, and see if that changes your perceptions of the people around you or changes your actions. I know I feel like I know my fellow humans better, understand more about how they get to be the way they are, and feel more likely to cut people some slack, including myself. Lots and lots of GOOD people, who are trying to do the right things, consciously, are dealing with unconscious biases they can’t do a darned thing about except acknowledge them and make an effort to mitigate them.
That’s probably most of my own friends and family, including me. How about you?