People, even people with the best of intentions, have biases. We say that justice is blind because we know how sight might betray us with instinctive acknowledgement of things unnecessary and detracting from the scales of equal consideration, thus deceiving the principle we hope to uphold. But what happens when that prejudice goes beyond your senses and resides in your mind, in the dark unconscious recesses that even your consciousness can't rationalize away?
These "mindbugs" are everywhere, Banaji and Greenwald assert. Just as our sight can fool us with optical illusions about table sizes and shades of grey on a chessboard, so can our mind trick us into pitfalls and blind areas that we consciously fail to notice most of the time. This is why people, even those who try to be "good *," often fall short of their own expectations.
Admittedly, I did not find the concept so earth shattering to my self-perception, but that could be because I immediately found evidence of my unconscious bias while reading the first few pages. When the authors were introduced, and Mahzarin was described with a female pronoun, I mentally paused. It was silly, because I know women are just as capable as men in science and higher education. I have argued with people on it extensively. Heck, my sociologist and anthropologist professors were women! But here I was, accidentally assuming at the first named author of a scientific book was male. Does this make me a bad person? A traitor to the feminist cause?
No. But, like Mahzarin said when receiving test results that showed her own bias, it made me feel like I failed somehow. And how even those who fight tirelessly for issues of social equality—even their own equality—may be susceptible to the biases that permeate the world around them.
The foundation of the book comes from the Implicit Association Test (IAT). The IAT is so important to their thesis that they provide several examples of the test for readers to try on their own, and they exhort the importance of the results as the only way to truly comprehend the effects of unconscious bias.
Basically, the IAT works by comparing two attempts at grouping various objects and if one grouping takes a longer time to do than the other, you realize that your mind more readily associates some things with others. For example, grouping a deck of cards into hearts/diamonds and clubs/spades is likely to take you less time than hearts/spades and clubs/diamonds. They point out that it is easier to group the cards by their color and have to mentally forestall that association when doing it the other way. Blindspot: The Hidden Biases of Good People
presents many of these tests that deal with race, age, and sex related attitudes. If there is a difference between the test times, then it would be marked as bias and quantified by degrees, depending on how significant the difference in time it takes to complete them.
Thankfully, they do not rest solely on IAT for the entirety of the book, and branch out into other studies that continue to point out bias associations. Examples are not given equal time, largely in part because they mention how racial studies have the most data to discuss, that there is a better sampling of US studies than global ones, etc. Blindspots
serves more as an exploratory book of the concept rather than a compendium of all related bias studies.
However, the book is not simply sociological data discussions. There is an almost informal tone for an academic book in some cases, as the authors—particularly Mahzarin—inject anecdotes of how unconscious bias can manifest itself in daily life or impact the people subjected to it. They employ famous "riddles" like the one about the son and father who get into a car accident; the father dies on the scene, and when the boy is taken to the emergency room the surgeon announces, "I can’t operate on him, this is my son." These attempts make the book easily accessible to audiences that have never taken Sociology 101, yet present the information in a way that makes even long-term academics rethink their preconceived notions.
If there is anything to really complain about in Blindspots
, it would be the footnotes.* Some of them gave details on the studies briefly referenced in the text itself, explaining how the study was conducted, what the population was, and so on. Others seemed to be a a simple source citation, but sometimes the references are vague. For example, on page 114:
"Stereotypes do not take special effort to acquire. Quite the opposite—they are acquired effortlessly, and take special effort to discount. 13"
and then the footnote lists "13. Gilbert, 1991." Did the study pertain to special efforts for discounting? Is it simply a study on stereotypes and if so why this one in particular? Instead of filling in details of the text, most footnotes left me scratching my head as to why a study was listed, or frustrated at the lack of context provided.
As a whole work, Blindspots: The Hidden Biases of Good People
is a book that is very relevant to our day and age. They do not end with platitudes or a ten point list of how to fix these mindbugs (although I wish they went into detail about how the spider phobia study also seemed to break certain racial discrimination!) but instead explain that awareness of these biases might be the first step to further studies in correcting them. I would highly recommend anyone who wants to gain insight into their perceptions giving this book a read.
* Good is defined in this case as “those of us who strive to align our behavior with our intentions”
* I like footnotes at the bottom of the relevant page, and the galley copy had them snuck in between the references and appendixes. As you can guess, this is highly annoying when flipping between pages.