Who Do You Think You Are?

By Banerji, Shilpa | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, September 8, 2005 | Go to article overview

Who Do You Think You Are?


Banerji, Shilpa, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


In the Implicit Association Test, Harvard psychologist Dr. Mahzarin R. Banaji measures perception and prejudice.

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.

Images of Jackie Robinson, Zora Neale Hurston and several other people of color float across the computer screen of Dr. Mahzarin R. Banaji. While all the images are of admirable icons, their purpose is more than mere motivation. The Harvard University psychology and social ethics professor is using this Black and Brown mosaic to help dispel her subconscious biases. Banaji has made a career of showing people what they really think, starting with herself.

Born and raised in India, racial and ethnic bias have been present in her life from the beginning, but her scientific study of bias began in earnest almost a decade ago. As a professor of social and cognitive psychology at Yale University, Banaji was conducting research on how social attitudes are affected by unconscious thoughts. Some studies at the time indicated that even amnesiacs, who had suffered severe memory loss, still possessed memories, they were just unable to access them. That scientific revelation led Banaji to wonder if our social attitudes operated in a similar way.

"You don't have to be an amnesiac to show those signs," she says. "Maybe all of us have another side to ourselves that we don't have access to."

To help answer the question, Banaji teamed up with fellow psychology professors Dr. Anthony Greenwald of the University of Washington and Dr. Brian Nosek of the University of Virginia to develop the Implicit Association Test. The IAT was created as a tool to examine thoughts and feelings that exist either outside of conscious awareness or outside of conscious control. In essence, the test uncovers subconscious preferences. For people who consider themselves fair-minded and objective, the results of the IAT can be unsettling and unexpected, as Banaji found out when she took it for the first time. She was shocked to discover how many biases existed within her subconscious.

"For a moment, I had a feeling everything was draining out from me," she says. "But then the scientist in me came back ... to ask more questions."

As a woman of color, the race-bias test she helped develop served as a stark reality check. "Becoming aware changed me in some very deep ways, and I thought I was already pretty aware," she says.

WHAT IAT MEASURES

Humans are faced with countless social situations daily. Psychology students learn early on that generalizations and categorizations are effective yet flawed ways of navigating life's social maze. But those shortcuts accurate or not - can easily become ingrained biases. Are Middle-Eastern men at the airport interpreted as a threat? Are young Black or Latino men in a group considered a gang? Are the elderly and teenagers perceived as untrustworthy behind the wheel? The examples are limitless. And for the most part, we don't even recognize them on a conscious level. But the IAT brings those latent prejudices to the forefront, and it does not necessarily paint a pretty picture. Since it went online, says Nosek, more than three million people have taken the test. More than 80 percent of White respondents have shown a pro-White bias. But interestingly, 50 percent of Blacks show an anti-Black bias.

"There's a two-punch story with Blacks. First, they do show their bias themselves, but they don't show it to nearly the same extent as Whites do," Banaji says.

The test may be "in your face" she says, "But the IAT is not just about what we see in other people. It is about what we see in ourselves.

"We know that, as members of groups, we perform enormous acts of kindness. We do things for our family, we root for our school teams, we come to school and work for lots of people besides ourselves," she says. "What is interesting is that that same identity, with the group, also has an ugly side."

FOR AND AGAINST

The revelatory test quickly acquired both critics and supporters in the psychology community.

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