Twelve years ago, my grandmother passed away at the age of 94. Born in 1912, she was the product of a different time, but other than maybe telling a slightly off-color joke or wondering out loud why there were so many more homosexuals around these days than when she was young, I don’t recall her being prejudiced against any particular group (except maybe Italians, but that’s a story for another day). Apparently in her final days in the nursing home, however, she started loudly proclaiming that the African American orderlies were planning on sexually assaulting her. What gives, grandma? Suddenly all black men are rapists? Obviously, this was in the pre-Trump era or she would no doubt have known to be afraid of Mexicans.
I was going to insert a joke here but it seemed redundant.
Was my grandmother a closet racist all her life? I don’t believe so. Rather, she had unconscious biases, just like we all do. There isn’t a person alive who hasn’t made an instantaneous judgment about another human being based on their physical appearance, the car they drive, or the clothes they are wearing. From an evolutionary aspect, this makes sense. When you evolve in a dangerous world where everything is a threat, anything different is worthy of suspicion. Fortunately, we all have conscious brains that help to counteract our unconscious biases. As an animal lover, I might see a gun rack and immediately think, “Murderous bastard,” but then my conscious brain kicks in and I consider that hunters are often active in conservation efforts. Logic and thoughtful analysis override my automatic response. What happens, though, when our conscious brain stops working? When illness, or fatigue, or dementia kick in? The logical side is weakened and can no longer keep the unconscious mind in check.
In The Hidden Brain, social scientist Shankar Vedantam explores aspects of unconscious bias and how they affect decisions that we make every day, from scenarios as small as contributing to an office coffee fund to those as large as people’s response to genocide. Only by understanding how and why we make the decisions we do can we hope to overcome the limitations of our unconscious mind.
In one example, Vedantam describes a study done in an office in Newcastle, England, where people were expected to contribute a certain amount of money into a box at the beverage station, depending on the type of drink they took. Nobody was watching, so the setup relied completely on the honor system. One would expect that the level of honesty would be consistent from week to week, yet the amount of money collected varied widely. In alternating weeks, as much as three times as much cash was collected than the week before. What changed? During alternating weeks, the sign that listed the prices for each beverage included either a photo of watching eyes or a photo of flowers. The contributions increased during the watching eye weeks, simply because of the suggestion that somebody was watching. People hadn’t even consciously notice that the sign had changed, but their hidden brain had.
The “judgmental cat eyes” experiment failed when it caused employees to just stop giving a shit.
The beverage experiment is interesting, but the workings of the hidden brain can cause much more serious consequences than short-changing your employer for your mocha latte. In a chapter on gender and privilege, Vedantam explores the way men and women are treated differently in the workplace. The problem with sexism claims is that it’s very difficult to prove that a woman is getting paid less than a man or being treated differently based solely on gender. If only there were a way to see how a person might be treated as a member of the opposite sex.
This is a clue.
While we may only have anecdotal data to go on, the experiences of transgender people who have transitioned tell a powerful story. Vedantam recounts the stories of Joan Roughgarden and Ben Barres, biologists and tenured professors at Stanford University. When Ben (formerly Barbara) transitioned, he suddenly found himself being taken more seriously. After one lecture, an audience member who didn’t know Ben’s history even commented, “Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but, then, his work is much better than his sister’s.” That is some weird-ass sibling dynamics.
Not this weird.
Alternately, Joan (who transitioned to female from male) found blockades where there weren’t any previously. When she first came to Stanford in 1972, it seemed like “tracks had been laid down; all Roughgarden had to do was stick to the tracks, and the high expectations that others had of the young biologist would do the rest.” Unfortunately, transitioning to female took her off those rails. Suddenly she was having a harder time getting people to listen to her. Where, in the past, there had been robust but polite disagreements, male scientists were now yelling at her when they disagreed, interrupting her when she talked, and generally taking her less seriously. Her salary, which had been above average when she was a man, is now in the bottom 10% of full professors in the School of Humanities and Sciences.
Even more disturbing is the chapter on race and the criminal justice system. A study by psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt analyzed why some violent crimes result in death sentences and others in life imprisonment or less. She and her team looked at 600 cases in the Philadelphia area in which the crime was serious enough to warrant the death penalty. All the cases involved black defendants, so this was not a study of white vs. non-white punishment but rather, what caused some black defendants to receive the death penalty and not others. The study found that defendants with features and skin tone that were considered more stereotypically African overwhelmingly received the death penalty at higher rates than those considered “less stereotypically black.”
In case your faith in humanity is not quite dead at this point, Vedantam goes on to explain how human beings are only capable of caring about things on a very small scale. Show us a single story about a lost dog and we’ll cry our eyes out; show us a story about mass rape and murder on the other side of the world, and we change the channel. Vedantam argues that the human brain is simply not designed to grasp the implications of mass suffering. “If the hidden brain biases our perceptions about risk toward exotic threats, it shapes our compassion into a telescope. We are best able to respond when we are focused on a single victim.”
While this book is unsettling and brings to light things about ourselves that we might rather not know, the conversation is what’s important. I recently took a class about inclusion where we discussed unconscious bias, and the instructor had this to say: “You may not be able to control your first thought, but you’re responsible for your second thought, and you’re responsible for your actions.” The only way to rise above the workings of our reptilian brain is to acknowledge our biases and try to learn from them. So rather than yelling at grandma for telling a racist joke, maybe try to get her to talk about what she really thinks. It’s really the only way to make progress, and it’s easier than teaching her how to use a smart phone.