WHAT'S IN A CATEGORY?
Responsibility, Intent, and the Avoidability
of Bias against Outgroups
SUSAN T. FISKE
When I teach the psychology of racism—a course I have now taught over half-a-dozen times at two universities—a predictable low point occurs every semester. About halfway through the course, after we have covered the latest research on the social cognitive origins of bias, everyone in the course becomes profoundly discouraged and even depressed. If they could, they would give up and go home. But this is a university course, so they continue, partly to avoid the W on their transcript, partly out of curiosity to see how much worse it can get, and partly because I urge them to stay tuned because the news eventually gets better. What is so unpleasant about discovering the psychology of bias? It is not the focus on a few really bad apples—the ones who make the national news for unspeakable outgroup murders. It is not learning about the 10% of the population that harbors extreme, bigoted views, consistent with the views of people who go on to commit hate crimes. We all know about them from newspaper and television reports. But what is the news from academia, and why does it depress my students?
By some counts, 80% of the populations of Western democracies harbor benign intentions about intergroup relations but display subtle forms of bias. Subtle forms of bias are automatic, unconscious, and unintentional;