Last week I had the opportunity to attend a talk sponsored by the Civic Unity Committee of the Mayor’s Office in Cambridge. Professor Mahzarin Banaji, Chair of the Department of Psychology at Harvard, gave a message entitled Implicit Bias based on the findings described in her work Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, which she published with Anthony Greenwald in 2013.
Banaji began her talk by posing this question:
“Are our values inconsistent with our behavior?”
Bias, she said, is a deviation from neutrality. And when you confront your bias you are forced to ask: “Is the bias revealing something I like about myself or something shameful in me?”
Thousands of studies in psychology in recent decades have unearthed systemic differences in how we treat people. There have been resume and audit studies and studies on every subject you can imagine at this point. “We have rules about who can suffer in what way”, she suggested, as in men can go to war, women can’t get high paying jobs. In a job interview we are motivated by similarity. Day to day we discriminate as we decide who to help, more frequently helping those who are more like us.
To demonstrate her research, Banaji interrogated the audience in real time as we responded to a series of computer tests that asked us to group words in different combinations under time pressure. As rapidly as possible we needed to group morally neutral words associated with the Red Sox (Boston) or Astros (Houston) with words associated with home (kitchen) or career (briefcase). But then the tests grew in emotionally difficulty as we grouped male or female names with home or career and good (peace) or bad (war) and then in combinations with black or white race. We were convicted and convinced of her research on hidden bias as we read the computer generated response times and saw we were far from neutral regardless of the order of tests administered.
For those among the audience of a few hundred eager progressives who might have been unsettled by this new awareness of their own implicit bias, Banaji reminded them that Cambridge has historically been a “town of firsts” -- in terms of efforts for women’s suffrage, abolitionism, and gay marriage.
“Now,” she challenged, “there are new issues for which we can be first. We can grow as a city together.”
Banaji described one example of a Boston organization eliminating bias in the job interview: the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducts auditions behind a screen. She pointed out that they have the benefit of only needing to focus on one modality -- sound. The rest of us live in a world where we have to juggle a variety of inputs at any time.
She challenged us to evaluate: “How much disparity between your core values and your behavior can you tolerate?”
Then she admitted that she couldn’t tell us what to do with that disparity. “That is between you and your God,” she said. She said this was about understanding human nature, about explaining scientifically why things are the way they are.
This admission from a scientist reminded me of a passage I read earlier this year from Barbara Kingsolver’s fictional novel Flight Behavior. With breathtaking imagery Kingsolver tells the story of small town Dellarobia who stumbles upon a displaced population of monarch butterflies threatened with extinction by the cold of their new environment in southern Appalachia. The plight of these butterflies attracts the attention of many different kinds of people from all walks of life, including a scientist named Dr. Ovid Byron who acts as a potential hero for Dellarobia, who is exhausted of her life as a housewife and seeks knowledge of the outside world.
Facing the pressure of great expectations, Dellarobia is crushed by the weight of wrestling with environmental and social issues so tangled and complicated that she can’t see a clear path ahead -- for herself or for the butterflies.
When the situation looks bleak Dellarobia tells Ovid that there is a man who says he has a truck ready to drive the butterflies south to Florida. She looks to her esteemed scientist to tell her what they should do. From page 320 of HarperCollins 2012 hardcover publication:
“I am not a zookeeper,” [Ovid] said. “I’m not here to save monarchs. I’m trying to read what they are writing on our wall.”
Dellarobia felt stung. “If you’re not, who is?” ….
“That is a concern of conscience,” he said. “Not of biology. Science doesn’t tell us what we should do. It only tells us what is.”
In her work, Kingsolver pays great respect to the complexity of environmental issues and the struggle involved in reaching a consensus about how to move forward. To Kingsolver, no one is the hero. Even the scientist must admit his own shortcomings, that he is only one piece of the equation.
Likewise, Banaji, by her own admission, couldn’t tell me what to do with the new revelations I discovered about myself. That would take further personal reflection.
I also felt like I hadn’t learned anything I didn’t already know. Perhaps it was because I’d read Debby Irving’s reflective work Waking up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race and had already examined my own biases. Our reading and book club discussion were certainly helpful, and now I wanted concrete and practical applications for how to eliminate bias in my own life.
I always want to leave a talk with a take-away message, so if I can fish for one it will be this: Banaji’s question of who do I help really stuck with me. I recalled being at Starbucks a few days before the talk. A homeless man ahead of me in line was begging for a sample of coffee. I had a moral fight with myself and decided not to offer to purchase him a coffee. I decided I would have purchased it if I hadn’t been staying in the shop to do some work. A few years ago I offered to purchase a sandwich for a homeless man who subsequently sought me out at different coffee shops to try to get food, coffee and conversation from me wherever I was. I felt like I couldn’t sit in public anymore. I wanted to preserve my right not to be bothered, so I didn’t help. On the other hand, a few weeks ago I didn’t hesitate however to purchase a coffee for the young white girl ahead of me in line who was having trouble with her phone app and forgot her wallet.
But to expand this idea of “helping” beyond the small example of buying coffee, I now ask the question: who will I reach out to? I want to pay attention to who I stop to talk to in the hallways when I pick up my kids from school, who I seek out to arrange playdates, and who I include in the other social and outreach activities in my life.
During the question and answer portion following the talk an audience member raised her hand and urged those around her to take this message back to their families and friends and consider how bias might play out in their lives. I decided I can do that too. A few nights later I had the chance to dissect the talk with my husband and my sister. And now I leave the topic here for you.
Check out Banaji’s book Blindspot and give yourself a check up.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.