The Situationist

Banaji & Greenwald on Edge – Part III

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 19, 2008

Mahzarin Banaji & Anthony GreenwaldThere is a great video interview of Tony Greewald and Situationist contributor Mahzarin Banaji on Edge. We’re posting parts of the transcript in several bite-sized installments. Part I is here; Part II is here.

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GREENWALD: The race IAT was critical. It is the version of the IAT that got the widest attention, and it is the one we would most often demonstrate in lectures. That is another of the IAT’s virtues: you can give a group demonstration and show a room full of people all at the same time that they have this shared difficulty in giving the same response to Category A and to Category B, but if you the switch the sides of the two categories, it becomes very easy.

We, and also many of our colleagues, have been very motivated by the discovery that the IAT reveals these associations with race effect in our own heads. The effect does not show up in everyone, but in perhaps 70 to 75 percent of those who have tried the test. Some are upset by this observation. They are concerned that the test is, in effect, accusing them of being prejudiced. That reaction has led us to take pains to distinguish what this test measures from what is ordinarily meant by prejudice.

Prejudice is ordinarily understood as a state of mind that leads to intentional discriminatory behavior. People who have no intent to discriminate and no dislike of a racial group might think that their IAT result was characterizing them as prejudiced. We have repeatedly said, no, that it is not what the result means. In describing what the IAT measures, we have been careful to use phrases such as ‘implicit attitude,’ ‘implicit preference,’ and ‘automatic preference,’ while avoiding the unqualified word ‘prejudice’. Incidentally, if we did describe the test as measuring prejudice, then we would be accusing ourselves of being prejudiced.

BANAJI: One of the great insights this test has provided for me is the ability to look at what might be evolutionarily “old ways” in which we tend to behave when left to our own devices. Our social preferences must have some roots in our early social groups and interactions. From having evolved in a world where people on the other side of the river were either people you killed or people who would kill you. We now live in a world where we have to outsource to those same people on the other side of the river! We have to be friends enough with them to understand their culture so that we can get them to do things with us and to think about our common fate.

It is one thing to say, “The law says you should do this or that.” It is quite another thing to say, Well, if we are really smart, and if we are really the adaptive creatures that we are, we are going to look at the ways in which we behave and see that they are not necessarily to our advantage. And as we learn we will change. And we will change in all of the ways in which we are going to need to. Like the work we need to do and will do to solve our environmental problems. Or our health problems. Eating too much is a problem because our bodies evolved in a world where food was far less abundant that it has come to be (for many people in the world). We cope by thinking about calorie intake and output in new ways. I think one of the tests of human intelligence will be whether we can take insights that are inconvenient truths about our minds, turn them around, and use such knowledge to create a better society – by which I mean, one that is line with our consciously chosen aspirations, rather than one we are being driven toward out of ignorance of who we are and our past.

GREENWALD: The IAT provides a useful window into some otherwise difficult-to-detect contents of our minds. In some cases, we find things we did not know were there. It may be “an inconvenient truth” that what’s there is not what we thought was there or want to be there. But I think it is generally something we can come to grips with.

BANAJI: We have to believe that everyone is to blame, or rather everybody is responsible. It is not just the media. It is not just your parents. Instead, we find to be attractive those metaphors that come from air borne pollutants. What our minds acquire comes from the stuff that is hanging around in the atmosphere. It is in the water. It is in the air. When that is the case, you cannot hold individual people responsible. You can hold larger units and larger groups of people responsible in the same way that we do in order to solve the problem of environmental damage.

To come back to the test, I think an intuitive way to understand what it does is to imagine working with a deck of playing cards. If I ask you to sort the cards into two piles—red cards on one side; black cards on the other—you should be able to do so relatively easily. Let’s say I measure the time it takes you to put the red cards to the right and the black cards to the left and use a stopwatch to time you. Then I say, “All right, I am going to time you again. This time put the hearts and clubs to one side, and the spades and diamonds to the other”, and I start the stopwatch again. . We would all understand intuitively that the second sorting should take longer than the first. And the difference in time is indicative of the cognitive ease of the first relative to the second.

Like that, the IAT is trying to capture the difference between two sortings. When we encounter two things that have not been paired together very much in our experience, it takes a little longer to put them together because they are strangers to each other, making the task difficult. Working from this assumption, the IAT requests pairings of say Obama and good and Hillary and good and looks at the relative speed of judgment and the error rates. What is nifty is that you can replace Obama and Hillary with anything you want. If you are interested in looking at your preference for Coca-Cola versus Pepsi-Cola, you can adapt the test to do that.

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For a eight-minute review of IAT research by Scientific American (including clips of both Mahzarin Banaji and Brian Nosek, who each explain how the biases can operate outside of, or contrary to, one’s intentions), watch the video below.

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