Re: Fwd: Brain shows unconscious prejudices

From: Scott Chase (
Date: Fri 20 Jun 2003 - 01:04:53 GMT

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    >From: "Wade T. Smith" <>
    >Subject: Fwd: Brain shows unconscious prejudices
    >Date: Thu, 19 Jun 2003 11:53:07 -0400
    >[I've read several unflattering comments upon the protocols and results of
    >this study, but, it is interesting, and I don't just mean from my POV.]
    >Brain shows unconscious prejudices:
    >Fear center is activated
    >By William J. Cromie Gazette Staff
    >You may not think you are prejudiced against other races, gays, or
    >overweight people, but your brain activity could tell a different story.
    >A brain area involved with fear flashes more actively when white college
    >students are exposed to subliminal views of black versus white faces. The
    >students didn't actually "see" the faces, which were sandwiched between two
    >patterns they viewed while undergoing brain scans. But they had a clear,
    >deep-brain reaction to them.
    >The same type of bias shows up in Web site tests taken by hundreds of
    >thousands of other people. They reveal unconscious prejudice against the
    >elderly, gays, women, the obese, and a wide range of other groups.
    How about surfers versus rednecks or Harvardians versus Yaleians? Have they tested how members of these groups with non-ethnic differences react to each other? How about reactions of Yankees fans to pictures of Boston Red Sox players of the same race they are.
    >Such brain and behavior tests might lead you to view the world as a grim
    >place suffused with hidden hate and fear. But evidently things are not that
    >bad. When white subjects undergoing brain scans see the black face long
    >enough for it to register consciously, brain areas involved with controlled
    >thinking become active. The differences in reactions to black and white
    >faces then decrease.
    How about the variable of experience or familiarity with members of another racial group? Do white people with lots of black friends or whom date or marry black people react the same way? I'd especialy be interested in the results of white people whom have parented interracial children, whether their own or adopted.

    I'd also be interested in a comparison of the reaction of overt bigots versus the reaction of interracial daters or marriers.
    >"The imprint of culture is what we see in the subliminal exposure,"
    >explains Mahzarin Banaji, Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics
    >at Harvard University. "Seeing the face consciously allows thoughts and
    >feelings to generate a more reasoned response to the face in view." The
    >research, done in collaboration with William Cunningham and Marcia Johnson
    >at Yale University, suggests our conscious brain can lead us away from the
    >prejudices of our unconscious mind.
    >"To the extent that we can influence what we learn and believe, we can
    >influence less conscious states of mind," Banaji notes. We can determine
    >who we are and who we wish to be.
    >Shocked by bias
    >A liberal scholar of Indian background, Banaji was shocked when a computer
    >test she uses to uncover prejudice in others revealed her own unconscious
    >bias toward black Americans and elderly people. The test demands that a
    >person quickly associate black faces, or those representing other groups,
    >with "good" and "bad" labels. Test takers are given only a fraction of a
    >second to respond, too little time for anything but a gut reaction.
    Does Banaji socialize with lots of black people on a regular basis? I'd be interested in the results if she were dating or married to a black man and had interracial kids.
    >"It was disconcerting and humbling to discover that my fingers didn't move
    >as fast when I paired black with good as they did when I paired white with
    >good," she admits. "I am neither black nor white, and I profess to hold
    >egalitarian race beliefs. The results suggested that I should be skeptical
    >about my own ability to be unbiased.
    >"At first, I didn't believe such biases could be changed by anything short
    >of a revolution that rearranges the social world as we know it," she
    >continues. "But my own students proved me wrong."
    >One of her graduate students set up a good/bad, white versus black test
    >that was supervised by a black researcher. White students in that situation
    >showed less anti-black bias. "Just one black person exhibiting competence,
    >being in charge, even for a short time, was able to change associations
    >stamped into peoples' minds over a lifetime," Banaji concludes.
    That's cool. Positive interaction with other groups can change your perception of them. This shows how segregation could breed more racism and how integration is the key to racial harmony. Programs like affirmative action which have facilitated hiring and promotion of blacks have helped them reach positions of authority that allow whites to see them in a less negative light than the days of Jim Crow.
    >There's no way to wipe out all the years of evolution during which humans
    >and their ancestors learned to fear the unfamiliar, to be ready to run or
    >fight at any threat. But brains are flexible enough to be altered by
    >experience. "If this were not so, we would not have seen the reduction of
    >bias in students who worked with a black researcher," Banaji points out. We
    >shouldn't expect such changes to last long, but it does cause Banaji to
    >feel optimistic about making behavioral changes that, though are small and
    >temporary, are real.
    Again I'd love to see results especially for people who have married members of another race as compared to those tending to mingle with their own, even to the point of having not even one black friend.
    >Harvard is a place where many portraits of distinguished white men stare
    >from the walls of meeting and dining rooms. An effort to diversify the
    >portraits, to show more women and nonwhites is underway. Combined with
    >other modifications in our surroundings, which include everything from
    >television shows to background music, this sort of effort could subtly
    >reduce bias, Banaji believes.
    I'd like to see a comparison of white people on the variable of musical preference (heavy metal versus hiphop) and how many black people they choose in a list of people they see as role models as to their reactions to black faces.
    >Against the elderly
    >Anyone can determine her or his own prejudices by taking the online tests.
    >Those that measure race, ethnic, sex, and age bias are available at
    > You can view a test demonstration or, by giving some
    >information about yourself, actually take a test. More than 60 different
    >tests are also available at Topics range from animals
    >to politics.
    >Banaji and her collaborators put the tests online in September 1998. In the
    >first month, after television and newspapers reported their availability,
    >40,000 tests were taken. Since then, information from 2.5 million of them
    >has gone into research findings published by Banaji and colleagues.
    >The most troublesome result is a strong bias against elderly people. "It's
    >the largest bias we see," Banaji says. "I was very surprised. People don't
    >openly discuss ageism much, like they do racism or sexism, yet its strong
    >presence makes it much more insidious."
    >You would expect such a prejudice to decrease with age, but it doesn't.
    >Responses show the bias remains large and robust from ages 8 to 68. "As
    >people get older, they don't necessarily think of themselves as "elderly,"
    >Banaji comments. Fifty-year-olds think of 60- and 70-year-olds as elderly;
    >60-year-olds think of 70- and 80-year-olds that way. "Elderly" comes to
    >mean "older than me." Information from the online tests doesn't reveal why
    >this is, but Banaji has some thoughts about it. "Age has come to be
    >associated with negative qualities, such as decreases in stature, power,
    >physical agility, and cognitive ability," she says. "Of course that's not
    >true for everyone. I know a 78-year-old colleague who runs up stairs faster
    >than his students." Whether it's myth or reality, however, generalization
    >lumps everyone together.
    Did they focus on reaction to one end of the age spectrum? How about reaction towards people relatively younger, say elderly or middle age reaction towards teens and infants?
    >Gays and women
    >More expected was prejudice against gays and lesbians. "We thought we would
    >receive lots of angry mail when we added this test, because many Americans
    >believe this is not a bias but an appropriate value to uphold," Banaji
    >recalls. "It turns out to be a prejudice that people are least concerned or
    >ashamed about. People are not happy to see their prejudices against other
    >races and older people revealed. But they don't necessarily view an
    >anti-gay bias with the same shame."
    Did they look at reaction of gays or lesbians to other gays or lesbians, especially reaction of gay men to lesbians and vice versa?
    >There's also relatively less shame in prejudice against the overweight.
    >People show an implicit bias against the overweight and obese, but they are
    >not too distressed about it.
    >Another unexpected finding reveals an unconscious feeling about women
    >pursuing careers rather than staying at home. You'd think that would be
    >strictly a male bias, but men and women show it equally. And to a startling
    >degree. Eighty percent of test takers associate men with a "work" category
    >and women with a "family" category.
    >Such prejudices are unconscious, of course, but they could influence things
    >as and hiring and firing employees. "These tests are a research and
    >educational tool to raise awareness," Banaji points out. "They should not
    >be used otherwise. We hope that the test results will leave each person to
    >decide for him or herself what they wish to do with this new knowledge that
    >reveals they are sometimes less than they aspire to be."
    Well if there happens to be a natural tendency for people to react negatively towards members of other groups (the in-group versus out-group thingy) this natural state is not necessarily a good state. An "is" does not translate into an "ought". One thing I got from Pinker's latest book was a better grip of the naturalistic fallacy. If people have inherent bigoted tendencies or xenophobia, that just means there's more work to be done. We have a possible natural craving for sugar and fat, but that doesn't make eatings 20 lbs of ice cream a day good.

    And what's with *natural* foods...

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