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May 11, 2008

Buried Prejudice: The Bigot in Your Brain



Deep within our subconscious, all of us harbor biases that we consciously abhor. And the worst part is: we act on them

The heading and subheading above are from a recent article in that well-known Greenie publication, "Scientific American". I also reproduce the first part of the article concerned below. The article seems to be aimed towards making us less prejudiced towards outgroups. But the article exists in a reality vacuum. It totally ignores realities such as the incredibly high rate of violent crime among blacks and also ignores most of the research on impression-formation and stereotyping. It is largely a rehash of some well-known work by Banerji and Richeson that I have commented on some time ago.

The "amazing" thing that the researchers found was that whites (and some blacks) are more wary of blacks than they are of whites -- no matter how you measure or detect that. Such a finding would, however, surely surprise only a psychologist. If blacks REALLY ARE more dangerous to others, it is merely psychological good function to be more wary of them than of others. And I don't think even Leftists attempt to deny the high rate of black crime. So to call such perfectly proper wariness in people "bigotry" is itself bigoted. Bigotry is judging people according to a fixed and wrong set of preconceptions and it seems to me that that is exactly how psychologists are judging others when they refer to perfectly normal and adaptive behaviour as bigotry.

The one thing that the research literature on stereotyping shows most clearly is that the "stereotypes" people have in their heads are not usually (Except, perhaps in the case of psychologists) rigid or imprisoning but are highly flexible and responsive to the realities that people encounter (See for instance here and here). That fact fully explains all the behaviour that the psychologists described below view as "bigotry". If blacks change, the perceptions and expectations of them will change -- but I am not holding my breath.

Fortunately, the same literature tells us that once we get to know a particular person as an individual, the importance of the stereotype recedes rapidly -- so that the particular person will then in general be treated as we find him/her, regardless of any expectations we have about the group to which he/she belongs. A rather amusing example of that which I once came across was a white neo-Nazi whose best friend was a very dark-skinned Bengali. And there was another guy who could not stand "Chinks" (East Asians) but who was happily married to one. And Wilhelm Marr, the man who in 1879 invented the term "antisemitism" (he thought it was a good thing), was actually married to a Jewish lady! Psychologists have traditionally seen such behaviour as perverse but a good knowledge of the impression-formation research would have told them that it is normal.
"There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life," Jesse Jackson once told an audience, "than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery-then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved."

Jackson's remark illustrates a basic fact of our social existence, one that even a committed black civil-rights leader cannot escape: ideas that we may not endorse-for example, that a black stranger might harm us but a white one probably would not-can nonetheless lodge themselves in our minds and, without our permission or awareness, color our perceptions, expectations and judgments.

Using a variety of sophisticated methods, psychologists have established that people unwittingly hold an astounding assortment of stereotypical beliefs and attitudes about social groups: black and white, female and male, elderly and young, gay and straight, fat and thin. Although these implicit biases inhabit us all, we vary in the particulars, depending on our own group membership, our conscious desire to avoid bias and the contours of our everyday environments. For instance, about two thirds of whites have an implicit preference for whites over blacks, whereas blacks show no average preference for one race over the other.

Such bias is far more prevalent than the more overt, or explicit, prejudice that we associate with, say, the Ku Klux Klan or the Nazis. That is emphatically not to say that explicit prejudice and discrimination have evaporated nor that they are of lesser importance than implicit bias. According to a 2005 federal report, almost 200,000 hate crimes-84 percent of them violent-occur in the U.S. every year.

The persistence of explicit bias in contemporary culture has led some critics to maintain that implicit bias is of secondary concern. But hundreds of studies of implicit bias show that its effects can be equally insidious. Most social psychologists believe that certain scenarios can automatically activate implicit stereotypes and attitudes, which then can affect our perceptions, judgments and behavior. "The data on that are incontrovertible," concludes psychologist Russell H. Fazio of Ohio State University.

Now researchers are probing deeper. They want to know: Where exactly do such biases come from? How much do they influence our outward behavior? And if stereotypes and prejudiced attitudes are burned into our psyches, can learning more about them help to tell each of us how to override them?




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