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The 'mindbugs' within

Two American academics show how humans subconsciously harbour biases

Shivam Saini  |  New Delhi 

If the women-should-stay-at-home club is looking to expand, this reviewer would promptly volunteer. Hold on, girls! Before those spike heels and long fingernails take aim at me, let me fill you in. For as long as I could remember, I had never imagined a life without a career outside the home. In my conscious mind, I could never think of women as being purely focused on homemaking and men as solely providers. Until two weeks ago, when this book arrived at my desk.

As I held the book, I wondered whether this was one of those works on human psychology that seem inviting at first but, as the pages turn, the whitewash wears off to reveal mind-numbing jargon. So, I suspiciously flipped through the book hoping to find a giveaway. Instead, a page carrying a list of words, each flanked by a circle on both sides, leapt out at me. The list ran thus: she, garden, her, office, he, laundry, girl, job, him, profession, his, briefcase, woman, kitchen, home, man, salary... It was a test that required respondents to place these words correctly in either category: (a) Female or Family (check the circle to the left); (b) Male or Career (circle to the right). So, obviously, "she" (Female) meant checking the circle to the left; "kitchen" (Family): tick the left circle; "office" (Career): right; "man" (Male): right. It took me less than 30 seconds, with no error - an absolute doodle. On the next page, the categories had been slightly altered: (a) Female or Career; (b) Male or Family. I did finish this one, only with different results: in 45 seconds, with - the club Board may take note - two errors.

So, what explains this freak outcome? Someone who consciously dissociates herself from the mindset that stereotypes women as kitchen-bound individuals confusingly twirls her pencil over the circle that requires her to place "men" with "kitchen", before ticking it somewhat doubtfully. Does that make me a now-unmasked closet traditionalist? Not necessarily. If the authors are to be believed, it's possible that I was oblivious to the female=family and male=career stereotypes I had harboured all this while. Other than the fact that this line of reasoning could serve as an effective shield against clawing fingernails and stiletto attacks, there are enough reasons to believe what these two pioneering psychologists have to say.

Mahzarin R Banaji, who teaches at Harvard University, and Anthony G Greenwald, professor at University of Washington, have written an intelligible book that packs a serious punch. Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People is all about acknowledging that our mind does have a blind spot, which, in the authors' words, is a portion of the mind that "contains a large set of biases and keeps them hidden". The authors term these implicit biases "mindbugs", or, simply, "ingrained habits of thought that lead to errors in how we perceive, remember, reason, and make decisions".

So, is there a way to identify these "mindbugs"? Interestingly, the authors have co-devised a myth-busting psychological test, the Implicit Association Test (IAT), one of which was the aforementioned gender test. These tests - based on race, gender, weight, age, sexuality and so on - lead the authors to a useful conclusion: that our "automatic, less conscious" mind (which houses the blind spot) often determines our behaviour, which may not be in tune with what our "reflective, conscious mind" intends. The resultant lapses of judgement come at a price. The authors here pertinently recall exactly what kind of car a savvy business school professor with a growing family intended to buy when he went to a dealership - a utilitarian vehicle suited for transporting the dog, the groceries and the kids, much like a Volvo station wagon. He came back home in a sporty red Porsche instead.

But do such fascinating conclusions about blind spots serve a useful purpose outside the arcane world of psychology? Ms Banaji and Mr Greenwald have done a fine job of substantiating their research theories. Much of the latter section - two chapters and two appendices - draws on conceivable stereotypes of gender and race, which are more often than not the result of cultural influences and social structures. Therefore, placard wavers clamouring against blatant discrimination handed out to the vulnerable sections of society would do well to familiarise themselves with the biases that evade identification. In a useful chapter titled "The Hidden Costs of Stereotypes", the authors explain: "Stereotypes are hard to pin down because so often they are put into play without any feeling of person animus and vengeance ... they are acquired effortlessly, and take special effort to discount."

Effortless as they are, stereotypes resulting from hidden biases are reflected explicitly in everyday life: in the form of wrongful conviction; and inequitable treatment in health care benefits, employment opportunities, promotion, and so on. Particularly interesting are the authors' findings on the implicit race attitudes towards the African American population in America. It is with some concern that they conclude: "...hidden biases plausibly contribute more to discrimination in America than does the overt prejudice."

What sets the book apart is that it doesn't come to any definitive conclusion; you are free to draw your own. So if your IAT results reflect a "slight" preference for White people over African Americans, a "moderate" preference for young over old, and a "high" preference for thin people over overweight people, that doesn't necessarily make you an appalling racist who scorns the elderly walking down the street and mocks the portly neighbour. It's just that while you were taking the IAT, your less conscious mind took over from your conscious mind. So the next time a TED speaker offers advice on "how to control your mind", don't forget to raise your hand and ask, "Which one?"

Hidden Biases of Good People
Mahzarin R Banaji and Anthony G Greenwald
Penguin/Viking; xv+254 pages; Rs 599

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First Published: Tue, April 02 2013. 21:25 IST