Category Archives: Prejudice

Why Juan Williams Fears Muslims at Airports

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Ever hear of the phenomenon called an “illusory correlation”? It explains why commentator Williams, who was recently fired from NPR, associates Muslims at airports with terrorists.

I am going to be writing my next column for Slate about this issue. To whet your appetite, here’s a radio interview about illusory correlations and other biases with Steve Fast of WJBC. 

Why Are Tea Partiers Disproportionately Likely to Believe Prez Obama Favors Blacks Over Whites?

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More than twice as many members of the Tea Party Movement (compared to the general public) believe President Obama favors blacks over whites. The stats: 25 percent of tea Partiers versus 11 percent of the general public believe the Obama White House disproportionately favors blacks over whites. This according to a New York Times poll.

The link between political outlook and racial views is a correlation — we cannot say for sure whether concerns about benefits accruing disproportionately to blacks drives the Tea Partiers’ opposition to President Obama, or whether opposition to President Obama drives concerns about benefits accruing disproportionately to blacks. It is also possible that some other factor drives both phenomena. (When it rains, people wear rainboots and carry umbrellas. It would be absurd to conclude that wearing rainboots causes people to hold umbrellas. Both rainboots and umbrellas are triggered by a third factor — the rain.)

The striking size of the correlation, however, reminds me about the disparate threads that have been shown to link racial outlook and political orientation in the United States. I describe these at length in Chapter 9 of The Hidden Brain — Disarming The Bomb — and also talk about ways conscious and unconscious racial bias can be neutralized in politics.

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Hidden Brain Puzzle # 6 Answer: Anti gay-marriage laws associated with increase in mental disorders/distress among gays & lesbians

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Gays & lesbians in 16 U.S. states suffered steep increases in depression, anxiety & addictions between 2001-05. The states were Arkansas, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas and Utah.

What happened in those states in that time period that may have caused such distress? Those states all passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage in that time period, according to new research by Mark L. Hatzenbuehler, Katie A. McLaughlin, Katherine M. Keyes and Deborah S. Hasin. Heterosexuals in those states did not show the same increase in mental disorders/distress, and gays and lesbians living in the other 34 U.S. states (that did not pass such constitutional bans) also did not see such increases in distress and disorder.

The increases were striking: Generalized anxiety disorders among gays and lesbians in those 16 states rose 248.2%, alcoholism increased by 41.9 percent and mood disorders (including depression) increased by 36.6% according to a paper published in the American Journal of Public Health.

The researchers themselves note the appropriate caveats that their data could not address: It’s possible, for example, that gays and lesbians who were healthier to begin with (or privileged in other ways) moved to states with more liberal attitudes toward homosexuality, leaving behind those who were sicker to begin with. It’s unclear whether the new laws were themselves responsible for the change, or if the general climate surrounding these laws were to blame. It’s also unclear whether liberal policies toward gays and lesbians would result in decreases in disorders. Such questions cannot be addressed without conducting randomized experiments, and such experiments (which would involve randomly assigning gays and lesbians to different states, for example) would be both impractical and unethical.

It’s good to keep the caveats in mind, but I think this study raises profoundly important questions about the effects that our national conversation about homosexuality has on the mental health of gays and lesbians. It’s never been a secret or surprise that there are human beings at the receiving end of these policies and debates, but this research brings home clearly the effects that laws and institutional actions can have on the personal well being of individuals.

In making what is essentially a civil rights argument against constitutional bans on same-sex marriage, the researchers write, “although the constitutional amendments largely codified policies that existed de facto, the sociocultural environment surrounding the approval of these amendments made them no less psychologically harmful. Creating constitutional amendments banning gay marriage reinforced the marginalized and socially devalued status of lesbian, gay and transgendered individuals. Moreover, the negative political campaigns against gays and lesbians by proponents of these amendments, which were well-circulated in the media, further promulgated the stigma associated with homosexuality.”

Since the time the study was completed other states, including California, have passed similar bans. Research is ongoing about whether the same changes in mental health among gays and lesbians is occurring in those states.

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Shankar Vedantam on The Tavis Smiley Show Tues, Mar 23, 2010: Should President Obama have a Black Agenda?

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Tavis Smiley’s interview with me about The Hidden Brain is scheduled to air tonight — Tuesday, March 23 — on public television stations nationwide on The Tavis Smiley Show. Please tune in.

The interview took place last week in Los Angeles on the eve of a meeting Tavis Smiley convened over the weekend in Chicago to debate whether President Obama should have a “black agenda” to focus on the problems faced by African-Americans. We talked at length about the chapter of The Hidden Brain that focuses on unconscious racial bias in politics. Watch a short video introduction to the chapter, called Disarming The Bomb, here.

The empirical evidence on whether the White House needs a black agenda seems pretty clear cut: African-Americans are about 400 percent more likely to be imprisoned than whites, about 500 percent more likely to be murdered, begin life with a 1-5 disparity in family wealth, have an infant mortality rate that is about 50 percent higher than the white infant mortality rate, have an unemployment rate that is about double the white unemployment rate and so on.

The fact Obama happens to be  black is completely beside the point: Regardless of who occupies the White House, it seems pretty obvious that special help needs to be directed toward a group of people who are disproportionately suffering. We would think it absurd if anyone asked whether a President was from the Gulf Coast in order to determine whether the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina entitled the people of New Orleans and the surrounding area for special federal resources and rebuilding efforts.

But as I explain in Disarming the Bomb, race and the controversies swirling around it are never far from our unconscious minds when it comes to politics, even when the issues being discussed ostensibly have nothing to do with race. Obama is severely constrained when it comes to talking openly about race, and his top advisor David Axelrod has helped to get a number of African Americans elected to public office by studiously getting issues of race and/or gender off the table. During the 2008 presidential election, for example, Obama and his team repeatedly suggested America had moved beyond race — even in the face of explicit statements by sizable numbers of voters who said they would never vote for a black man. The media uncritically accepted theories about a “post-racial” America — theories implicitly endorsed by the Obama campaign — because that narrative fit with the fact that Obama got elected.

As I told Tavis Smiley on the show, there is at least one person in the United States who knows for certain that we do not live in a post-racial America — and that person is President Barack Obama. If he did think we lived in a post-racial America, he would have no trouble talking about race because, well, race would no longer matter.  I note in The Hidden Brain that Obama never once mentioned the words “race,” civil rights” or “Martin Luther King” during his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention in 2008 — and the convention happened to be held on the 45th anniversary of the famous 1963 march on Washington that was led by Rev. King. Think about the irony there: It was the first time an African-American man was on the presidential ticket of a major party, and that man had to be mute when it came to the very issue that made his campaign historic.

The fact that a canny politician such as Obama feels the need to be silent about race — or risk losing credibility and support — says less about Obama than it does about the United States. Black leaders such as Tavis Smiley who believe we need to have a “black agenda” in order to help the tens of thousands of African-Americans in dire straits are obviously right. But the sad fact of the matter is that pressing Obama to come out with an explicit policy toward blacks could alienate a sizable number of voters not just on that one issue, but on a raft of issues. This isn’t my opinion — please read the “Disarming the Bomb” chapter in The Hidden Brain for the empirical evidence into the role that unconscious racial bias plays in politics.

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HIDDEN BRAIN PUZZLE (AND ANSWER): Sexism in the Workplace — Some Paradoxical Evidence

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You are a woman worried about sexism who has applied for a job. When you enter your interviewer’s office, you see (a) an office with newspapers, stationery & dictionaries (b) an office with Playboy posters, motorcycle mags & hunting awards (c) an office with rainbow flags and plaques about diversity. Which prospective interviewer is likely to elicit the WORST interview performance from you and why?

The obvious answer, of course, is B. Equally obviously, of course, there is a catch. It turns out that the correct answer is A. It’s the office that contains no clues about the prospective interviewer’s views about gender/sexism/diversity etc that poses the greatest threat to the self-confidence of our prospective interviewee. Remember the puzzle said this was an interviewee who was concerned about sexism. It turns out that ambiguous information (or no information) creates more of a concern to people worried about something (as they spend time trying to figure out who they are dealing with) than a person with explicitly threatening views.

I constructed this puzzle from an experiment conducted last year by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, Lindsay Shaw-Taylor, Serena Chen and Eunice Chang. The researchers asked female volunteers who were worried about sexism to take a test, and provided them with information ahead of time about the office of the person who would be evaluating them. The offices were broadly similar to what I described in the puzzle. The women given the ambiguous information performed much worse on the test than women given more explicit cues that their evaluator was likely to hold sexist views. The researchers published their work in a paper called “Ironic effects of explicit gender prejudice on women’s test performance” in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

The wrong lesson to draw from this experiment is that interviewers should display Playboy pinups in their offices ahead of interviews with female job candidates. The right lesson to draw is that if you want people to perform at their best — and managers, companies and institutions pay a clear price when talented job-seekers underperform during interviews — you have to make it explicit that you don’t count yourself among the knuckleheads.

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The Wage Gap — How unconscious bias affects how we think about the value of work in "female" professions

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I recently came by some remarkable research by Christine Alksnis at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario that offers an intriguing way to think about the wage gap — men and women are typically paid different wages for doing the same work in the United States, with women’s income ranging from 77 cents to 89 cents for every dollar earned by men. One reason offered by apologists for the wage gap is that men and women choose different kinds of professions. If you choose to become a high school teacher you can’t expect to make as much money as a software engineer, right? If only more women would go into traditionally masculine professions, the apologists say, the wage gap would vanish.

If it were only that easy. As I describe in The Invisible Current chapter in The Hidden Brain, unconscious sexism is ubiquitous and works in subtle ways. (Watch a video introduction to the chapter here). The problem is not just that the labor of women is undervalued relative to the labor of men in the same profession, but that professions that employ lots of women are undervalued compared to professions that tend to employ men.

The question, in other words, may not be why women don’t become software engineers as often as they become high school teachers, but why software engineers are paid so much more than high school teachers? It’s the marketplace, you say? The market decides on the value of each profession and the market is neutral?

Alksnis and a colleague, Serge Desmarais, conducted an experiment that provides hard evidence to back up the intuitions of many feminist scholars who have long argued that we undervalue professions that employ women for little more reason than that these professions employ lots of women. They asked volunteers to estimate the salaries of store clerks and magazine editors. The catch was that volunteers were asked to estimate the salaries of two kinds of store clerks and two kinds of magazine editors. One store clerk was said to sell china and crystal, the other store clerk was said to sell hardware. One magazine editor was in charge of an automotive magazine and the other was the editor of a gourmet food magazine. Can you see what the researchers are upto? The skills, experience and educational qualifications required to be a store clerk in either case, or to be an editor in either case, are identical, but we tend to think of these positions in gendered terms. We think of the editor of the automotive magazine as being a man, and the gourmet magazine as being a woman, the china store clerk as being female, and the hardware clerk as being male.

Alksnis found that both male and female volunteers picked lower salaries when asked to guesstimate the salary of the store clerk who sold china compared to the salary of the hardware store clerk, and a lower salary for the gourmet food magazine editor compared to the automotive magazine editor. Ironically, the volunteers said the skills required for the different store clerks, and the different magazine editors, were identical.

In a paper published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, Alksnis and Desmarais wrote, that “when participants assigned salaries to what they perceived as “male” and “female” jobs, the jobs that they identified as female-typed were assigned less pay than were the jobs they identified as male-type.”

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Fighting unconscious bias: Reframing threats as challenges

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One of the more pernicious dimensions of the hidden brain is the way in which it prompts many people to fulfill self-defeating stereotypes about their groups. If you tell a classroom of students that men tend to outperform women in math tests — right before you administer a math test — the women in the class are likely to perform more poorly on the math test than they would if you had not said anything. You don’t even have to remind people explicitly about the stereotype: Merely drawing attention to whether students are male or female before administering a math test can impair the ability of women to do their best.

You can show the same phenomenon in a variety of domains — you threaten the ability of white men to play basketball by telling them that on average blacks are better at basketball than whites (or just by making race salient in their minds before they compete in a basketball game.) It matters little whether the stereotypes are “accurate” or not — just that they are widely shared. The phenomenon is sometimes called “stereotype threat” — a clunky phrase, in my opinion, that does not do justice to this pernicious form of prejudice.

New research by the talented Adam Alter at New York University (whom I cite in The Hidden Brain for other research) and his colleagues suggests there may be a clever way to disable stereotype threats among high school and college students. If threats can be rephrased as challenges, Alter and his colleagues found, they no longer impair the ability of people to perform their best. The research was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

 When experimenters told black students between the ages of 9 and 13 that a standardized math test they were about to take would reveal how good they were at solving math problems, the performance of the students dropped compared to when they were told that the test would help them learn new things, or that “working on these problems might be a big help in school because it sharpens the mind.”

Alter and his colleagues found a similar phenomenon when it came to college students at Princeton University.

One way to think about these interventions is to think about how they changed what the students were paying attention to. Threats draw attention to our flaws, weaknesses and inadequacies. Challenges, on the other hand, remind us about our potential. It’s a useful lesson for educators to keep in mind.

The Leonard Lopate Show and Mike Pesca discuss The Hidden Brain and unconscious biases in disasters, politics and among small children

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I spent some time in the interview talking about an unconscious bias I discovered in my own three year-old daughter. Before she could tie her own shoelaces, she had already come to the conclusion that nurses always have to be women, and that doctors usually have to be men. Where do you think this bias came from? You can listen to the interview here or download an MP3 file, and learn what I think parents ought to be doing to confront the unconscious biases that can be observed in children right from the time they are toddlers — biases that stay with us well into adolescence and adulthood.

Much of the research into the biases of small children is described in Chapter 4 of The Hidden Brain, which is titled “The Infant’s Stare, Macaca, and Racist Seniors.” You can watch a short video introduction to the chapter here — scroll down to the section titled Table of Contents and Video Summaries.

Many people are familiar with the famous experiments conducted in the 1940s that showed the strong preferences that small black children had for white dolls over black dolls. A remarkable replication of the experiment was conducted recently, and you can watch a short video of the new experiment here.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about what you think parents can do to confront the unconscious biases of their children.

George Allen's "macaca" comment: Does he deserve compassion or censure?

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There have been a couple of reviews/accounts about The Hidden Brain that mention my thoughts about George Allen’s infamous “macaca” moment — Allen repeatedly referred to a young Indian-American as “macaca”  — comments which contributed to Allen’s losing his Senate race, and the Republicans losing control of the U.S. Senate in 2006. The section of the book where I discuss the Allen case also mentions another incident where the entertainer Michael Richards (who played Kramer on the show Seinfeld) used racist language to silence a black heckler at a comedy club.

In the book, I write, “Most Americans think of Allen’s comments and Richards’s views as abhorrent—and they are. But unpleasant and inaccurate associations lie within all of us, which is why when we see someone slip, our reaction should not be “We finally caught that racist bastard!” but, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” When we focus mountains of newsprint and television time on these incidents, we implicitly set ourselves off as different from the George Allens and the Michael Richardses. We convince ourselves that biased attitudes are the exception, when dozens of research studies have shown that they are really the norm—among blacks and whites. I am not saying everyone associates brown people with “macaca”—I had to run to a dictionary myself to find out what the word meant. What I am saying is that we all have mindless associations in our hidden brain that surface when we are not on guard.”

In his Washington Post review, Peter D Kramer (author of Listening to Prozac and other books) said he was skeptical that Allen’s comments stemmed from his unconscious. He pointed out that I also castigate politicians for deliberately injecting race into campaigns. Isn’t it possible that Allen used the term “macaca” deliberately? Shouldn’t he receive our censure rather than our compassion?

There are multiple issues, and multiple (unexamined) assumptions here. First, as Kramer notes in his review, I hold George Allen entirely responsible for his comments, even if they stemmed from his unconscious mind, because regardless of whether our impulses are conscious or unconscious, we are always responsible for our actions. Second, no one other than George Allen really knows what was happening in his mind and, if you buy my assertions about the hidden brain, it is also possible George Allen didn’t really know what was happening in his mind. Third, as I note in the book, there are certainly plenty of people who have consciously prejudiced views.

But I think there is a strong case to be made that Allen was not thinking consciously when he made his comment. As I say in the book, “Let’s turn the question around. Let us assume that Allen and Richards did not have a hidden brain, that their comments were the product of conscious intent. George Allen’s crack now seems even more peculiar than it already did. (Who calls someone a “macaca,” anyway?) If Allen had been consciously trying to slur the Indian American at his rally, he was engaging in intentional political suicide. The young man Allen addressed was taping him on a video camera—and he was working for Allen’s opponent in the Senate race. Sure enough, Allen denied being suicidal. In his flustered attempt to explain his comments, he said, “It’s contrary to what I believe and who I am.”

There is a deeper issue here that is very important. The conventional way we think about prejudice is to automatically associate it with hatred and animosity. In other words, our conception of prejudice is limited to conscious prejudice. One of the central ideas in my book is that prejudice can also be unconscious. That does not make it acceptable, and that does not allow those who express racist sentiments or act in racist ways off the hook. We are always responsible for our actions, regardless of whether they spring from conscious or unconscious motives.

But it does suggest that our conventional approach to prejudice — which is to castigate the person who said the racist thing or fire the manager who said the racist thing — is not very effective at combating racism. When we tell someone they said something racist, their invariable reaction is that they did not mean to be offensive. And because we generally don’t believe the unconscious really exists, the conversation stops there. In many ways, this limited understanding of our minds is the reason people do not take responsibility for their own actions. George Allen, for example, can ask himself if he has conscious animosity toward Indian-Americans, his conscious mind responds “no,” and he then internally dismisses all criticism. But if he were to accept that his comments sprang from unconscious associations in his hidden brain — and that those unconscious associations still persist and could influence him again in other settings — he would have to have an entirely different conversation with himself, because it would no longer be sufficient to say, “but I didn’t mean it.”

A central message in my book is that it doesn’t really matter whether we mean it. It doesn’t really matter whether we intend to be fair. It doesn’t really matter whether we think of ourselves as good and kind people. Taking personal responsibility does not stop at merely checking the contents of our conscious minds. It must extend to examining our unconscious minds as well.

The Diane Rehm Show featured The Hidden Brain — Disasters, the Criminal Justice System, and naked Visigoths

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Listen to an interview about The Hidden Brain conducted by the Diane Rehm show. The show was guest-hosted by the immensely talented Susan Page of USA Today, and featured a discussion that ranged from how to reform our criminal justice system to same-sex attraction among Visigoths. Sorry, I can’t say more. You’ll just have to listen to it.