BIAS & Everyone is biased: Harvard professor’s work reveals we barely know our own minds

“Everyone carries with them implicit biases that may change how people perceive or interact with others.”

by Carolyn Y. Johnson, Boston Globe,

Mahzarin R. Banaji was starting out as an assistant professor of psychology at Yale University in the late 1980s, at a time when women professors were scarce enough that administrators eager to offer a class on the psychology of gender turned to her. Banaji had no expertise in the area; her research focused on memory. But she said she would do it, and she quickly found herself inhabiting the overlapping worlds of gender studies and psychology.

Banaji was fascinated by a memory study by psychologist Larry Jacoby. He had asked people to read a list of names from the phone book, such as “Sebastian Weisdorf”, and rate how easy they were to pronounce. A day later, those same people were handed a list of names that included famous people, others from the phone book, and some names from the list they had read the day before. Asked which were famous people, the study participants incorrectly classified Sebastian Weisdorf and others, whose names they had learned just the day before, as famous.

What, Banaji wondered, would happen if the name was Susannah Weisdorf? Would this same benefit, of becoming famous overnight, accrue to women? She did the test and found that female names were far less likely to achieve fame in the same way. When she grilled participants later, to try and figure out what could lie behind the discrepancy, she was struck by one thing: it occurred to no one that gender might be a factor.

That study was a seed, which grew into an idea in psychology that has become transformative: everyone carries with them implicit biases that may change how people perceive or interact with others. Doctors, judges, police officers, teachers—even Banaji herself—are all subject to these biases, which can lead people to inadvertently act in ways that may be discriminatory or are influenced by stereotypes that people would consciously reject…
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