Seeing the Unseen

Why,despite our best intentions,we continue to hold on to prejudice and biases

Written by L RAMAKRISHNAN | Published:April 13, 2013 12:05 am

BooK: Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People

Author: Mahzarin R Banaji and Anthony G Greenwald

Publisher: Penguin Viking

Price: Rs 599

Pages: 270

Recently,a top politician,an alumnus of an elite Delhi college,doubted the veracity of a letter written by a serving minister,because it contained words like “dichotomous” something that the minister,an alumnus of a college that supposedly does not measure up to the top leader’s alma mater,cannot be ordinarily assumed to know.

The fight was clearly political,but it kept commentators busy and gave much fodder to the editorial and op-ed pages of newspapers (this one included). What gives the graduates of this “elite” college the right to look down upon those who do not share the same tie,roared commentators? A backlash from students and alumni of the minister’s college followed and the matter was settled by the principal of the elite college.

The “chip on the shoulder” was evident. But what is it that gives rise to such attitudes? This is the subject of Blind Spot that distils 30 years work by psychologists Mahzarin R Banaji,who now teaches at Harvard,and Anthony G Greenwald,who teaches at University of Washington,whose experiments have tried to unravel such biases in those who are otherwise the good lot.

The book starts with a set of simple visual tests to prove that a “blind spot” effect exists followed by a hypothesis of what goes on in the brain that brings it about. The authors proceed to show how it manifests in the many activities that we do: telling lies,telling white lies,having a set of clear likes and dislikes etc.

It then builds up to the mainstay of the book,and of their efforts: the Implicit Association Test (IAT) that is designed to uncover prejudices. A version of the test is available online. It is a test of association where a few words from a group have to be slotted into the correct association. For example,there are names of flowers and pleasant sounding words such as gentle,love,happy etc. Then there are names of insects and unpleasant sounding words such as damage,vomit,hurt,poison etc. On a sheet one would have to associate the words in one of the two categories: “insects or pleasant words” and “flowers or unpleasant words”. Then the categories are reversed and the results of the test show a stronger (or weaker) association for pleasant or unpleasant experiences.

Banaji and Greenwald have administered many tests that bring out the nature of biases prevalent in several spheres: credit appraisals,political choices,gender stereotypes,the appraisal process at work (bosses,please note). One amusing illustration is of gay rights activists who when tested showed a marked anti-gay behaviour: a paradox between their stated position and their thought process. What leads to it? The authors do not draw out conclusions,but say the problem exists.

The one area where the IAT has been employed to its fullest is in studying race relations in the US. The results are telling: even after decades of social and political action,stereotypes persist. What can cure this phenomenon? The only solution the authors offer is to make people aware,through the test,of their thought process.

This 200-plus page calling card for the IAT nevertheless makes a complex science such as psychology accessible to the general reader. One shortcoming of this book is that its findings are concentrated exclusively on the socio-cultural milieu of the US,and there is little for a reader in other countries to relate to immediately. What of societies such as ours,united and diverse,who constantly negotiate contradictions and prejudices? The book has no answer to that,which is a serious shortcoming. There is no evidence to show that the tests have been carried out in India though Banaji is a Hyderabadi who was educated here before moving the US. That would have made interesting reading.

With the current attention on women’s safety,it would be instructive if the IAT is administered to our policemen. It might reveal biases,or perhaps not. But it can be a starting point for better policing and better safety for women.

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