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Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People
by Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald (216 pages, Delacorte Press)

04/11/13



 4/11/2013 - If you have an eye, you have a blind spot: the place where nerves enter the eyeball and render anything viewed in that space a void. Google “blind-spot test” and you’ll find an array of mildly addictive timewasters to demonstrate that old saw of magic, “now you see it, now you don’t.”

 
Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald give such a test at the beginning of their new book, Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. Then they spend 200 pages positing that the blind spots that matter most are the ones in our brains, not our eyes. This is hardly groundbreaking stuff for anyone familiar with the Implicit Association Test, a scientific means by which to gauge racial and gender bias. Banaji and Greenwald created the test in the 1990s, along with their colleague Brian Nosek (who inexplicably is exempt from the book tour), and so they know the subject matter better than anyone.  This book is an exceedingly long Wikipedia entry, spiced with lots of cool tests to see how racist/sexist/classist the reader is. We could just go to Harvard University’s “Project Implicit” website, implicit.harvard.edu, take the tests and ponder the implications, saving ourselves $26.96.
 
That said, this book could be far worse. When academics try to talk about race and prejudice, they usually set temples ablaze when they’re not putting people to sleep. (Anyone else remember The Bell Curve?) Here, the authors make plain and accessible the conclusions of more than a decade of research on hidden biases, which are summarized beautifully by Emily Dickinson in the opening quote, “The sailor cannot see the North — but knows the Needle can.”
 
The gist is this: Biology dictates that human beings have innate preferences for people similar to them. While the open practice of preferential treatment — i.e., discrimination — is discouraged and often illegal, at its innocent root, the practice is value-neutral. It enabled our ancestors to survive. Strangers, dangerous; homogeneity, safe. This worked out beautifully in theory and practice for a couple of million years; not so much today.
 
Today, we all work very hard to ignore and hide most prejudices that we harbor, whether they be toward people of other ethnic groups, hair color, body type, religion, social class, or propensity to drive a Smart Car or a Hummer. In fact, we work so hard at this that we’ve taken to lying so others won’t think ill of us. “Blue lies,” the authors say, are lies we tell when we want to convey a truth about ourselves, even if the “truth” happens to be false. Example: Someone asks what radio station a person listens to, and she says “public radio” even if she mostly listens to hip-hop.  We believe, and want other people to believe, that we’re the kind of person who listens to public radio, whether or not we actually do, so in our minds, the lie is justified.
 
That’s the kind of info-nugget the authors serve up repeatedly to ensure that if we don’t dedicate our lives to erasing unfair biases after reading the book, at least we’ll be wildly entertaining dinner-party guests. 
 
But Banaji and Greenwald truly want us to eradicate our “mindbugs,” defined as “ingrained habits of thoughts that lead to errors in how we perceive, remember, reason and make decisions.” The brain’s amazing capacity to complete an incomplete picture is useful but disturbing in its implications. The mind constantly searches for ways to link information, to anchor it in our brain, and in its rush to do so it often leaps over the truth. This results in what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness” — things we wish were true because it benefits us, or confirms our pre-existing mindset. 
 
The cost is to both others and ourselves, as when a woman doesn’t study math because she dimly remembers that Larry Summers and Barbie said math class is hard, and her Implicit Analysis Test reveals a bias unfavorable to women. Don’t look for an easy fix here, though. “We do not yet know how to go about eliminating or out-smarting self-directed mindbugs,” the authors write. There may be some benefit from exposure to positive role models, just as people respond more favorably to African-American faces after exposure to a highly respected black man like Nelson Mandela. 
 
“A quarter century of national media exposure to Oprah Winfrey, followed by Barack Obama’s election as president of the United State, may have occupied enough American media space to be contributing to alterations of African Americans’ stereotypes of their own race,” Banaji and Greewald write. “That said, there is no reason to doubt that the mindbugs we direct toward ourselves are every bit as durable as those we direct toward others.”
 
At just 167 pages in the main body of the book, followed by thorough appendices and notes, Blindspot demands a modest investment of time for a year’s worth of Psychology Today. It’s a self-help book for a nation almost — but not fully — recovered from a 300-year infestation of mindbugs.  B





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