How to Tame Your Hidden Prejudices

By Dana Carney

The architecture of the human mind has evolved to efficiently navigate us through a complex world. We make decisions constantly, and most of those decisions are almost unconscious.  Which direction do we check first when we cross the street? Who do we look at as we board a plane?  What is OK to touch at the flower store? Whom do we sit next to in the doctor’s office?

We like to think we have the free will to make the optimal decision through a rational process. More than 60 years of research, however, has shown that our rational mental processes are bounded. In other words, our brains sometimes make decision errors without our control or permission.

One frequent error is that our brains tend to prefer people who are familiar or similar to us. Many experiments in psychology have shown that white people are more likely to hire other whites rather than people of other races or ethnicities.  White doctors are more likely to offer medical treatment to whites than to blacks. Whites are more likely to be friends with other whites, join groups associated with whites, smile at whites, and touch whites. These social group biases occur in many other domains, including sexual orientation, religion, nationality, and economic status.

This kind of decision-making is essentially irrational and can lead to sub-optimal outcomes.  If Jamaal is as educated and experienced as Jason, it is irrational to favor Jason because he has a stereotypically white name.  Yet studies show that people do this often.  Likewise, a white Mr. Thompson may be no more ill than a black Mr. Thompson — yet studies show that the white Mr. Thompson is more likely to get treated for coronary artery disease.  

It’s too simple to write off such employers and doctors as racial bigots.  They have minds and brains just like yours and mine, and all of us make decisions  guided by what scientists call “unconscious preferences.” These are deeply  ingrained preferences stemming from a lifetime of exposure to a culture that values certain things.  If you were raised in America—regardless of your race—your brain was taught again and again that some social groups are more valuable and safer than others.

So here we are. We live in a world that we wish was post-racial, but our brains still see race as very important in making decisions. Are we doomed? Science says “no.”  

Studies show that the simple awareness of how your brain works can dampen some of the bias.  Further, the motivation to be unbiased, combined with an awareness of the bias, can do even more to mitigate the impact of those unconscious preferences still rattling around in your head.

Here’s what we all need to remember. First, prejudice and bias are still alive and well. Second, many of our prejudices live on without our consent.  Third, awareness of these biases can mitigate the impact of these biases on perception, judgment, decision and behavior.

To learn more about implicit preferences and their impact, an excellent book is Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, by Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald. You can even test your own biases by visiting a related website, which offers online tests that are widely used and scientifically valid.

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