I was concerned that it might be a dull or dry read, but it is not. (I finished it in about a week.) I was fascinated from the first page when they show an optical illusion involving two table tops, as an example of how our minds cause us to see things in ways that don’t match reality.
A large portion of the book is devoted to the Implicit Association Test (IAT), a tool developed by the authors to uncover people’s hidden biases. Because these biases operate below the conscious level of our minds, we are not aware of them. If asked directly, people will often deny having such biases, and at the conscious level they do not.
The test works by asking people to associate certain words with certain categories of people, then switch the categories around and take the test again. It is a timed test, and people typically complete the test faster when associating a category of people with words that are stereotypically associated with that category than with the opposite.
I didn’t try to take the tests printed in the book, at least not with a stopwatch to get the most accurate results. They are available online at Project Implicit, and I figured the online version would have better images than those printed in gray-scale in the book. (Plus the computer could do the timing for me.)
I took two of the tests, one on leadership and one on racial attitudes.The authors warn that people are often surprised and usually dismayed by the results of the test on races, but I was also surprised – and somewhat skeptical – about the results of the one on leadership. According to it, I have no real preference toward being a leader versus a follower, which is counter to my feelings and experience. I am generally much more comfortable being a follower.
I have been in leadership positions enough to be able to make a mental association between me and being a leader, however. So when I was supposed to match up words related to leadership with myself, I focused on a mental image of myself as a leader in Toastmasters (I was president for one six-month term).
When I was supposed to match up words related to being a follower with myself (and the leadership words with other people), I switched to the more familiar mental image of myself being a follower. Apparently, I scored about the same both ways (score is based on a combination of time and whether errors were made).
Does that mean that I really do not have a bias towards being a follower? Or that the test is not very effective as long as I can compose an effective mental image to guide me as I take the test?
The test on racial attitudes was more difficult, because there were four different groups – Whites, Blacks, Asian, and Hispanic. My first concern was that the pictures used to identify the races show only an oval portion of the face, and I wasn’t sure just how well I could tell the four apart. The Hispanic features are not all that distinctive from those of the White faces, and unless they are placed side by side, I didn’t see the Black faces as looking all that much darker.
I suppose I could think of that as a good thing, that I couldn’t easily tell them apart – except that I know in real life I can. I may not know someone is Hispanic, but most of the time it’s I don’t wonder whether someone I’m looking at is Black or White. (Not that I spend time thinking about it either – it’s simply obvious from a glance.)
I ended up looking first at the names printed below the faces, because I could immediately spot the Hispanic names that way. It worked pretty well for the Asian names as well, but with the Blacks and Whites I had to go by the faces themselves.
The results page at the end showed that I have the highest positive attitude toward Hispanics, then Whites, then further down Asians and then Blacks. Does this really mean I have a bias toward Hispanics, because of my years spent studying Spanish and having lived in Spain? It may well be – my year in Spain was one of the best years of my life in many ways. But it may also be simply that I can identify the test’s Hispanics the fastest because of their names.
I could also argue that I had the most trouble identifying Blacks because I couldn’t go by the names, and I always had a moment’s hesitation over whether the skin was dark or not. (I didn’t have the same hesitation with Whites, because the skin was clearly not dark. But the Black pictures simply didn’t look as dark as my mental image of Black people.) Yet I can’t deny that I know few Black people and tend to mentally think of them as more different from myself.
As the authors of Blindspot explain, people do have a built-in preference for what is familiar, including people who are similar to themselves even if they do not know them personally. This tendency can be seen even in babies.
We also have minds that are hardwired to categorize everything. Making any kind of decision in life – even as simple as choosing what to eat – would be difficult if we had to evaluate everything and everyone without reference to categories. Is this food safe to eat? Where do I find a person with a particular expertise?
So we naturally gravitate to people who fit the category of “people like myself” because “familiar” usually means “safe.” Yet we know from living in an increasingly interconnected world that people who are very unlike us in some outward ways are really much like us in the ways that matter. At least our conscious minds know that.
One idea that Blindspot does not mention, that I have read elsewhere, is that our subconscious minds do not have any concept of time. Our conscious minds learn and change how we think about things based on that learning. But our subconscious reactions may be based on our earliest experiences. If we were exposed to certain stereotypes as young children, it’s no surprise that our subconscious minds still reflect those.
The authors do not assume that hidden bias is the same as discrimination (in its pejorative sense). Yet studies do show that people treat others who are more like them (whether it be in race, age, gender, education, etc.) better than they treat other people.
This was the point that got me interested in the book from the initial article I read. People in our society today are far less likely to treat people who are perceived as different in the negative ways that were more common in the past. Yet we still are most likely to provide extra help (whether it be money, networking, or whatever) to those who are most like us.
We don’t intend to hurt those who are unlike us, but if those with the greatest resources share them only with those in their own group, how different is the end result from deliberately withholding resources from those in other groups?
Blindspot does not provide much in the way of solutions. But it does a good job of exploring the questions.