Awhile back I blogged something about the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which is supposed to measure unconscious prejudices and bias even when those run counter to professed beliefs. The test measures the speed of reaction times when people associate particular words with particular categories of people. When someone is relatively slow to pair positive words with a minority group, for example, that’s supposed to indicate bias against that group. The IAT web site at Harvard lists a bunch of IATs you can take, including tests that will tell you something about your attitudes toward weight, disability, age, career and gender, and career and science.
Some psychologists have reservations about the interpretation of IATs; the reaction time doesn’t necessarily say a whole lot about what emotional or other factors might be slowing down a person’s reactions. (See How do you measure bias?) This new article from Scientific American discusses the IAT in the context of some social psychologists’ efforts to educate people about their subconscious biases, in hopes of changing their attitudes toward minorities. (It also mentions a survey of IAT-based research that indicated that the IAT does seem like a valid measure; it does, for example, predict behavior linked to stereotyping and prejudice.)
This is especially interesting in light of something I read recently. In No two alike, Judith Rich Harris described three mental mechanisms or systems that drive personality differences. Two of them are relevant here. The relationship system considers people as individuals and keeps track of information about each person we know personally, sort of like a mental rolodex. The socialization system, by contrast, identifies categories, including the category a person himself belongs to, and evaluates aggregate data about groups of people. This is a subset of the ability to form categories and assign things to them appropriately. Harris says:
“Babies make categorical distinctions between men and women and between children and adults before they have words for the categories. They are prepared to acquire knowledge about these social categories and other social categories they may encounter later–racial categories, for instance. This knowledge is acquired implicitly, mostly without conscious awareness. Though no one sees anything wrong with implicit knowledge about chairs, fish, dogs, wristwatches, or verbs, implicit knowledge about social categories of people is frowned upon and given a pejorative name: stereotypes.”
I had run into a similar idea in a philosophy of science class years ago; we use the scientific method to come up with reliable generalizations about how the world behaves, and this is a formalization of a process we all use informally. We couldn’t function if we had to evaluate from scratch every chair, every wristwatch, every social situation, and had no idea how to expect things and people to behave, yet these preconceptions are what can cause so much trouble when they take the form of stereotypes about people. Harris goes on to say that stereotypes tend to kick in for people we don’t know personally. I think it’s probably inevitable that we’ll have preconceptions about groups of people. Maybe part of the trick to treating people fairly lies in knowing how and when to suspend our tendency to categorize people for long enough to get to know individuals, and not to treat individuals as if they automatically shared all of the characteristics that we’ve come to associate with the group(s) to which they belong.
Another tactic, obviously, is to not buy into unfairly negative stereotypes in the first place. The Scientific American article makes the excellent point that even if we have this built-in propensity (or even need) to make sense of life by categorizing people to some degree, it’s culture that provides the content that defines the categories. The three social psychologists described in the article are taking their research into the real world by launching a non-profit organization to train people to be aware of the harmful stereotypes that we absorb from our social environment, and to deliberately counteract them. More power to them. It will be interesting to see where this goes.
I went to the Harvard IAT site, by the way, and took the gender-science test. It told me I show a moderate tendency to associate science with males and the liberal arts with females. Since I have a degree in astrophysics and can name a quite a number of female astronomers off the top of my head, it’s hard to argue that I am biased against female scientists or believe to any great degree that females can’t be scientists. The results might, however, mean that I’ve observed that historically more men than women have been scientists.