The Situationist

Posts Tagged ‘Mahzarin Banaji’

The Racial Situation of 2012 Election

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 8, 2012

From University of Washington Newswire:

After the 2008 election of President Barack Obama, many proclaimed that the country had entered a post-racial era in which race was no longer an issue. However, a new large-scale study shows that racial attitudes have already played a substantial role in 2012, during the Republican primaries. They may play an even larger role in this year’s presidential election.

The study, led by psychologists at the University of Washington, shows that between January and April 2012 eligible voters who favored whites over blacks – either consciously or unconsciously – also favored Republican candidates relative to Barack Obama.

“People were saying that with Obama’s election race became a dead issue, but that’s not at all the case,” said lead investigator Anthony Greenwald, a UW psychology professor.

The study’s findings mean that many white and non-white voters, even those who don’t believe they tend to favor whites over blacks, might vote against Obama because of his race. These voters could cite the economy or other reasons, but a contributing cause could nevertheless be their conscious or unconscious racial attitudes.

“Our findings may indicate that many of those who expressed egalitarian attitudes by voting for Obama in 2008 and credited themselves with having ‘done the right thing’ then are now letting other considerations prevail,” said collaborator Mahzarin Banaji, a psychology professor at Harvard University.

In the study, a majority of white eligible voters showed a pattern labeled “automatic white preference” on a widely used measure of unconscious race bias. Previous studies indicate that close to 75 percent of white Americans show this implicit bias.

In a study done just prior to the 2008 presidential election, Greenwald and colleagues found that race attitudes played a role in predicting votes for the Republican candidate John McCain.

The 2012 data, collected from nearly 15,000 voters, show that race was again a significant factor in candidate preferences.

In an online survey, Greenwald asked survey-takers about their political beliefs, how “warmly” they felt toward black and white people, and which presidential contender they preferred. Because the survey was conducted in the first four months of 2012, it included the five main Republican hopefuls – Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum – as well as Obama.

Greenwald also measured unconscious race attitude using the Implicit Association Test, a tool he developed more than a decade ago to gauge thoughts that people don’t realize they have. Different variations of the test measure implicit attitudes about race, gender, sexuality, ethnicities and other topics.

Greenwald found that favoritism for Republican candidates was predicted by respondents’ racial attitudes, both their self-reported views and their implicit biases measured by the IAT. Greenwald emphasized that the study’s finding that some candidates are more attractive to voters with pro-white racial attitudes does not mean that those candidates are racist.

“The study’s findings raise an interesting question: After nearly four years of having an African-American president in the White House, why do race attitudes continue to have a role in electoral politics?” Greenwald said.

He suspects that Obama’s power as president in 2012, compared with his lesser status as candidate in 2008, may have “brought out race-based antagonism that had less reason to be activated in 2008.”

Another possibility is that Republican candidates’ assertions that their most important goal is to remove Obama from the presidency “may have strong appeal to those who have latent racial motivation,” Greenwald said.

Greenwald and his research team will continue to collect people’s attitudes about the 2012 presidential candidates as part of their Decision 2012 IAT study. Now that Mitt Romney has emerged as the presumptive Republican nominee, the researchers are modifying their survey to focus on voters’ comparisons of Romney with Obama.

They plan to post summaries of the data each month until the November election. Anyone can take the test online: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/demo/featuredtask.html

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Posted in Implicit Associations, Politics, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

25 Mil­lion Years of Us vs. Them

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 21, 2011

From World News:

Like peo­ple, some of our mon­key cousins tend to take an “us ver­sus them” view of the world, a study has found. This sug­gests that the ten­den­cy for hu­man groups to clash may stem from a dis­tant ev­o­lu­tion­ary past, sci­en­tists say.

Yale Un­ivers­ity re­search­ers led by psy­chol­o­gist Lau­rie San­tos found in a se­ries of ex­pe­ri­ments that mon­keys treat mon­keys from out­side their groups with the same sus­pi­cion and dis­like as their hu­man cousins tend to treat out­siders. The find­ings are re­ported in the March is­sue of the Jour­nal of Per­son­al­ity and So­cial Psy­chol­o­gy.

“One of the more trou­bling as­pects of hu­man na­ture is that we eval­u­ate peo­ple dif­fer­ently de­pend­ing on wheth­er they’re a mem­ber of our ‘in­group’ or ‘out­group,’” San­tos said. “Pretty much eve­ry con­flict in hu­man his­to­ry has in­volved peo­ple mak­ing dis­tinc­tions on the ba­sis of who is a mem­ber of their own race, re­li­gion, so­cial class, and so on. The ques­tion we were in­ter­est­ed in is: Where do these types of group dis­tinc­tions come from?”

The an­swer, she adds, is that such bi­ases have ap­par­ently been shaped by 25 mil­lion years of ev­o­lu­tion and not just by hu­man cul­ture.

“The bad news is that the ten­den­cy to dis­like out­group mem­bers ap­pears to be ev­o­lu­tion­arily quite old, and there­fore may be less sim­ple to elim­i­nate than we’d like to think,” San­tos said. “The good news, though, is that even mon­keys seem to be flex­i­ble about who counts as a group mem­ber. If we hu­mans can find ways to har­ness this evolved flex­i­bil­ity, it might al­low us to be­come an even more tol­er­ant species.”

San­tos and mem­bers of her lab stud­ied rhe­sus ma­caque mon­keys liv­ing on an is­land off the coast of Puerto Rico. Mon­keys in this popula­t­ion nat­u­rally form dif­fer­ent so­cial groups based on family his­to­ry.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tors ex­ploited a well-known ten­den­cy of an­i­mals to stare long­er at new or fright­en­ing things than at fa­mil­iar or friendly things. They showed mon­keys pic­tures of oth­er mon­keys who were ei­ther in their so­cial group or mem­bers of a dif­fer­ent group. They found that mon­keys stared long­er at pic­tures of oth­er mon­keys who were out­side their group, sug­gest­ing the crea­tures spon­ta­ne­ously de­tect who is a strang­er and who is a group mem­ber.

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The Yale team’s re­sults sug­gest that the dis­tinc­tions hu­mans make be­tween “us” and “them”— and there­fore the roots of hu­man prej­u­dice—may date back at least 25 mil­lion years, when hu­mans and rhe­sus ma­caques shared a com­mon an­ces­tor.

“So­cial psy­chol­o­gists in­tro­duced the world to the idea that the im­me­di­ate situa­t­ion is hugely pow­er­ful in de­ter­min­ing be­hav­ior, even in­ter­group feel­ings,” said [Situationist Contributor] Mahza­rin Ba­naji of Har­vard Un­ivers­ity, a co-author of the pa­per. “Evo­lu­tion­ary the­o­rists have made us aware of our an­ces­tral past. In this work, we weave the two to­geth­er to show the im­por­tance of both of these in­flu­ences at work.”

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More here.

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Posted in Conflict, Evolutionary Psychology, Implicit Associations, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

The Situation of “Natural Talent”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 6, 2011

From Harvard Gazette:

Fields such as music, math, and chess have had a predilection for a long time to seek out the youngest and most accomplished among them. According to Chia-Jung Tsay, this is because “we want to seek something that’s inherent to us. We associate accomplishment at a young age with something that comes effortlessly.” But does this desire to seek out “natural” talent eventually skew our view of what talent is?

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Tsay and her adviser, [Situationist Contributor] Mahzarin Banaji, the Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics, began looking at different domains, considering which fields more strongly emphasize natural talent over hard work and experience. They found that music was the most often cited for natural talent, and business was most cited for hard work.

“Venture capitalists recognize that hard work and background knowledge in the field matter a lot,” said Tsay. “It’s the same for a doctor or a lawyer, where hard work and years of experience are what make us successful. But I think there’s a little more subjectivity in evaluation in artistic fields.”

To test this, Tsay and Banaji brought in more than 100 professionally trained musicians. Each participant was presented with two profiles of two professional musicians, and a sample musical clip to listen to from each musician. The participants were then asked questions about how talented and successful they perceived the performer to be, and how willing they might be to hire this person.

In fact, both clips were the same musical excerpt, and the profiles differed only in their mention of whether the musician had natural or learned talent. The results ultimately showed two effects: “We found even in experts and ostensibly professionally trained musicians, most of them could not tell that the recordings were the same. And on average, people seemed to prefer the ‘naturally’ talented individual, even when they said they believed hard work was more important than natural talent.”

The dramatic results suggest, according to Banaji, “a crucial disparity between what experts espouse, and perhaps even consciously believe, is the best indicator of talent, and how they actually behave.”

More.

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Posted in Implicit Associations, Life, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

Blood & Race

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 21, 2010

From the Harvard Gazette:

The centuries-old “one-drop rule” assigning minority status to mixed-race individuals appears to live on in our modern-day perception and categorization of people like Barack Obama, Tiger Woods, and Halle Berry.

So say Harvard University psychologists, who’ve found that we still tend to see biracials not as equal members of both parent groups, but as belonging more to their minority parent group. The research appears in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

“Many commentators have argued that the election of Barack Obama, and the increasing number of mixed-race people more broadly, will lead to a fundamental change in American race relations,” says lead author Arnold K. Ho, a Ph.D. student in psychology at Harvard. “Our work challenges the interpretation of our first biracial president, and the growing number of mixed-race people in general, as signaling a color-blind America.”

In the United States, the “one-drop rule” — also known as hypodescent — dates to a 1662 Virginia law on the treatment of mixed-race individuals. The legal notion of hypodescent has been upheld as recently as 1985, when a Louisiana court ruled that a woman with a black great-great-great-great-grandmother could not identify herself as “white” on her passport.

“One of the remarkable things about our research on hypodescent is what it tells us about the hierarchical nature of race relations in the United States,” says co-author James Sidanius, professor of psychology and of African and African-American studies at Harvard. “Hypodescent against blacks remains a relatively powerful force within American society.”

Ho and Sidanius, along with co-authors Mahzarin R. Banaji (Situationist Contributor) at Harvard and Daniel T. Levin at Vanderbilt University, say their work reflects the cultural entrenchment of America’s traditional racial hierarchy, which assigns the highest status to whites, followed by Asians, with Latinos and blacks at the bottom.

Ho and colleagues presented subjects with computer-generated images of black-white and Asian-white individuals, as well as family trees showing different biracial permutations. They also asked people to report directly whether they perceived biracials to be more minority or white. By using multiple approaches, their work examined both conscious and unconscious perceptions of biracial individuals, presenting the most extensive empirical evidence to date on how they are perceived.

The researchers found, for example, that one-quarter-Asian individuals are consistently considered more white than one-quarter-black individuals, despite the fact that African Americans and European Americans share a substantial degree of genetic heritage.

Using face-morphing technology that presented a series of faces ranging from 5 percent white to 95 percent white, they also found that individuals who were a 50-50 mix of two races, either black-white or Asian-white, were almost never identified by study participants as white. Furthermore, on average, black-white biracials had to be 68 percent white before they were perceived as white; the comparable figure for Asian-white biracials was 63 percent.

“The United States is already a country of ethnic mixtures, but in the near future it will be even more so, and more so than any other country on earth,” says Banaji, Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard. “When we see in our data that our own minds are limited in the perception of those who are the products of two different ethnic groups, we recognize how far we have to go in order to have an objectively accurate and fair assessment of people. That’s the challenge for modern minds.”

The team found few differences in how whites and non-whites perceive biracial individuals, with both assigning them with equal frequency to lower-status groups. The researchers are conducting further studies to examine why Americans continue to associate biracials more with their minority parent group.

“The persistence of hypodescent serves to reinforce racial boundaries, rather than moving us toward a race-neutral society,” Ho says.

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Arnold Ho is one of the confirmed presenters at the 2011 PLMS conference on “The Psychology of Inequality.”

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Fifth Annual PLMS Conference – Save the Date,” “Jim Sidanius ‘Terror, Intergroup Violence, and the Law’,” “The Palliative Function of Ideology,” The Blame Frame – Abstract,” The Motivated Situation of Inequality and Discrimination,” The Situation of Political and Religious Beliefs?,” Banaji & Greenwald on Edge – Part IV,” Why Race May Influence Us Even When We “Know” It Doesn’t,” “Wages Are Only Skin Deep – Abstract,” Colorblinded Wages - Abstract,” Shades of Fairness and the Marketing of Prejudice,” and “Black History is Now.”

Posted in Conflict, Distribution, Ideology, Implicit Associations, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Mahzarin Banaji at Harvard Law School

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 10, 2010

On Thursday, March 11th, the HLS Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences (SALMS) is hosting a talk by Harvard psychology professor Mahzarin Banaji entitled “Mind Bugs and the Science of Ordinary Bias.”  Here’s the description.

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How deep are the bounds on human thinking and feeling and how do they shape social judgment?  Our focus has been on the mechanics of unconscious mental processes, with attention to those that operate without conscious awareness, intention, or control.  Most recently, we have worked with a task that reveals unconscious preferences in a rather blunt manner, showing that they can sit, at one level, in contradiction with consciously endorsed preferences.  We use the tool largely for theory testing, focusing on questions about the nature of implicit social cognition and its measurement.  The research tool, in vastly simplified form, is also available to the public at a demonstration website (implicit.harvard.edu), offering estimates of automatic preferences toward social groups, political candidates, and academic orientation (e.g., math/science). From such study of attitudes and beliefs of adults and children, I ask about the social and moral consequences of unintended thought and feeling. My work relies on cognitive/affective behavioral measures and neuroimaging (fMRI) with which I explore the implications for theories of individual responsibility and social justice.

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The event will take place in Pound 107 at Harvard Law School, from 12:00 – 1:00 p.m. Free Burritos! For more information, e-mail salms@law.harvard.edu.

For a sample of Situationist discussing Professor Banaji’s scholarship, click here.

Posted in Abstracts, Events, Implicit Associations, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Gang Rape

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 2, 2009

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In the wake of the horrific story about a 15-year-old girl gang-raped in a schoolyard during a homecoming dance.  The girl was brutalized for more than two hours and, if that wasn’t disturbing enough, there are reports of as many as twenty people stood by and watched, without even calling authorities.  The story raises the question about how so many could do so little to help.  Were they all monsters or is there some other explanation?

On that topic, two Situationist Contributors have been interviewed to offer a situationist perspective.  We’ve excerpted parts of both interviews below.

From ABC News, here are excerpts from an article, titled “How Could People Watch Alleged Gang Rape ‘Like An Exhibit’?,” by Radha Chitale, interviewing Situationist Contributor John Darley.

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Psychology experts say the incident, if it occurred as described, may have been the result of escalating wildness facilitated by an isolated, heavily male environment.

“If one of the boys or men grabbed her and pulled her toward him … and somebody else did something else so it became more and more sexual in nature … we now have a [group of boys] who are pretty wild,” said John Darley, a professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University. “Each act licensed what had gone before, and it also made more likely what came next.”

Anyone who had reservations about the unfolding events “was surrounded by people who were apparently tolerating what was going on and maybe even encouraging it,” Darley said.

In fact, several of the onlookers cheered and made comments as the student was assaulted.

* * *

Meg Bossong, coordinator of Community Education and Outreach at the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, said the case suggested elements of the bystander effect, in which people are less likely to respond to an emergency when there are others around.

“That idea [is] that the more people there are around, the fewer people will get involved because there’s a diffusion of responsibility,” she said. “Not stepping in sends the message that it’s not such a big deal. … This is something that we hear a lot about around crime and also around sexual assault.”

The element of sexual violence in the alleged attack at Richmond High School may have contributed to observers’ apparent inaction.

* * *

But Darley said the apparent escalating brutality of the alleged attack may have had less to do with its sexual nature and more to do with the isolated location.

Marin Trujillo, a spokesperson for West Contra Costra Unified School District, said the attack occurred in a locked area not easily accessible from the enclosed gym where the homecoming dance was held and where security, which consisted of four police officers and numerous staff chaperones, were concentrated.

In fact, Darley said the seeds of behavior that could become unacceptable are evident when, for example, men catcall or whistle at people on the street, where social barriers prevent escalation. Military attacks on villages are another example where events can escalate beyond what is expected.

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You can read the entire article here.

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Situationist Contributor Mahzarin Banaji was interviewed by Neal Conan on NPR’s Talk of the Nation about the same story.  Here are some excerpts from that interview.

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CONAN: And when we hear about a case like this and we’re talking about the bystanders, those who watched and did nothing and walked away, those who stayed and, at least as far as we know from that report, jeered or cheered on what was going on, we think of those people and think they must be terrible people.

Prof. BANAJI: That’s right. That’s the first thought that comes to our mind. What else are we to think when we hear that a horrific event like this was simply allowed to continue to happen while people just stood there? So biologists and psychologists have studied for a long, long time the incredible capacity of human beings to help, to be altruistic. And therefore, these kinds of events pose a real dilemma. How do they happen and why do they happen, given that we know that we have a capacity to help?

Evolutionary psychologists might tell us that sometimes we’re unable to help when the group that we’re thinking about helping is far away because we didn’t evolve to think about helping people who lived many, many miles away. But again, the bystander problems shows us that this is happening in the here and now.

Sometimes it’s easy to think about helping an individual person, even though a group tragedy may not affect us. And again, the bystander problem poses a dilemma because this is about an individual human being and that person’s suffering. And so, of course, there are now, we know, many, many experiments done on something called the bystander non-intervention effect, and it was done in the late ’60s, following the murder of Kitty Genovese. And exactly as you say, Neal, the initial response from psychiatrists and psychologists was: Who were these horrible people who stood around watching the murder of this woman and didn’t call the police? And that led to a stunning set of experiments.

And the reason I say that the experiments here are so important is that because in any given case, we don’t know exactly what the pressures on the situation were, and we don’t know exactly what those folks experienced. And that’s why when we bring complex phenomena like this into the laboratory and we put them to the test there, we can say with far greater precision what it is that’s going on. And the results of two psychologists by the name of Latane and Darley stand out here because they reenacted certain situations in the laboratory, a person having a seizure, a bunch of smoke just flowing into a room, and all they varied was the number of people present.

And the data show over and over again that if there was one person in the room, the likelihood of helping is around 75 percent. But as the number goes to two and three and four and five and six, the number of people who jump up to help drops to 10 percent, right?

So there’s something about the size of the group that, although it should lead us to be more likely to help, actually produces the counterintuitive reverse effect.

CONAN: That’s fascinating. So, in effect, there’s something biological going on here.

Prof. BANAJI: Well, we can – you know, we would want to at least say that it is something cognitive going on because here’s what we think needs to happen in an emergency situation like this. First of all, you have to notice that there is an emergency.

CONAN: Sure.

Prof. BANAJI: And the remarkable result from these original studies is that if you are with other people sitting there, you are less likely to even notice the smoke. You are less likely to even recognize that the child’s cry for help is a real cry for help, and so on. So there’s something that changes in our minds to even identify what it is that’s going on. And, of course, once we identify what it is that’s going on, then we need to figure out some way to take action, and that’s where psychologists believe something called diffusion of responsibility occurs, that the number of people, as that – yes.

CONAN: It has to – if there’s a large number of people, it’s not an individual’s responsibility anymore. It’s, hey, if Charlie over there doesn’t do it, why should I do it?

Prof. BANAJI: That’s correct. Try dropping a penny in an elevator with one other person present versus six others present, and you’ll find the number of people helping to pick it up just drop precipitously.

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Prof. BANAJI: You know, I would say that from the perspective of the research, the type of crime proves to be less important. What is far more important is the setup of the situation, that is to say in this case, the sheer number of other people who were watching. And I just want to go back to the previous caller and something that Lieutenant Gagan said.

You know, he said these suspects are monsters. I don’t understand how this many people, capable of such atrocious behavior, could be in one place at one time. And I think the answer is actually embedded in his – in what he says, that is how could so many monsters gather in one place at one time? And the right answer from our perspective would be: These are not monsters. These are us. This is all of us. This has nothing to do with the fact that it happened in a particular city, although the size of the city does matter.

So smaller towns are more likely to be places where we will be helped, not because people in smaller towns are better people but because smaller towns have fewer people.

CONAN: Are smaller by definition, yeah.

Prof. BANAJI: Yeah. And that’s what I think is the most important point in the research, that this is not about a few monsters. This is about everybody. It says something very difficult to us. It says that perhaps had we had been standing there, we ourselves, if we were not better educated about this particular effect and what it does to us, we may fall prey to it ourselves.

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CONAN: . . . . Bullying, is that something that would fall into this category of bystanders?

Prof. BANAJI: Yes, absolutely I would say that it does. And that’s why even though we speak about it on radio and hear the media report it when it is an event of the kind in Richmond, California, I think that what your caller is bringing up tells us that these acts of intervention are acts that we are called upon every single day to make.

I have been thinking of this in the context of institutional corruption, and again, to me, the issue of why we don’t pick up the phone and report on something when we know that we’re going to be protected, when it’s not even throwing ourselves into the river to have to save somebody, why is it that we don’t? And I think understanding what’s at the heart of that inability, both at the level of the moral sort of pressure that we feel, but also much more at the level of the situations and the institutional mechanisms that surround us, that keep us from being able to do that.

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Prof. BANAJI: . . . .  I would say that if there’s anything for us to do here, it is to learn as individuals, to practice small acts of intervention, to just sort of begin to think about events around us as our responsibility. Those are the sorts of things that we hope that our educational systems will impart to people and that our society will sort of hold people, in some ways, responsible and for intervening and for not intervening. And it’s sort of – it’s really a disturbing – in some sense – to hear . . . that the law, in trying to improve the situation, may be setting it up in such a way that we are hurting act of intervention.

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You can read or listen to the entire interview here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Construing ‘Acquaintance Rape’,” The Situation of Blaming Rihanna,” “What Counts as Rape?,” “Unrecognized Injustice — The Situation of Rape,” The Situation of Helping,” “The Situational Effect of Groups,” ‘Us’ and ‘Them,’” “History of Groupthink,” “Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part I,” and “March Madness.”

Posted in Education, Law, Morality, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Birthers’ Belief

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 11, 2009

Obama Uniquely AmericanScientific American has an interesting, “60-Second Podcast” by Steve Mirsky about research by Situationist Contributor  Mahzarin Banaji and San Diego State’s Thierry Devos finding that white Americans inherently regard white Europeans as somehow more “American” than Asian- or African-Americans.  Here are some excerpts from the podcast, which you can link to here.

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The so-called birthers can’t accept that President Obama is really a natural-born American citizen. Part of what’s behind this seemingly irrational belief may lie in what’s called implicit social cognition—the deep-rooted assumptions we all carry around, and may act on without realizing it.

Harvard’s Mahzarin Banaji studies such implicit cognition. Last fall she talked to journalists at the annual conference of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing about research into bias against Asian-Americans. “So we thought, what if we picked Asians who are very well known to be American. What about Connie Chung? Are they going to be seen as less American than, let’s say, Hugh Grant? And so we thought this was a bizarre study to do but we did it anyway.”

Amazingly, white Americans did see a white European like Hugh Grant as being somehow more American than the Asian-American Connie Chung. And similar research in 2008 found that whites thought of ex-British Prime Minister Tony Blair as somehow more American than Obama. So the mental framework to believe that Obama is foreign probably was, to use a health care term, a preexisting condition.

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To read a closely related Situationist post, see “The Situation of Being ‘(un)American’.”

For some posts examining the the role of implicit associations in elections, see “Patricia Devine on Resisting Implicit Associations,” The Interior Situation of Undecided Voters,” On Being a Mindful Voter,”Lopez-Torres, Justice Scalia, and the Situation of Elections,” “Your Brain on Politics,” “Implicit Associations in the 2008 Presidential Election,”The Situation of Political Animals,” “Political Psychology in 2008,” “Perceptions of Racial Divide,The Psychology of Barack Obama as the Antichrist,” and “The Interior Situation of Undecided Voters.”

To review all of the previous Situationist posts discussing implicit associations click on the “Implicit Associations” category in the right margin, or, for a list of such posts, click here. For other Situationist posts on the 2008 Presidential Election, click here.

Posted in Implicit Associations, Podcasts, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

The Situation of Gender and Science

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 28, 2009

Men and ScienceRachana Dixit wrote a worthwhile article in Daily Progress summarizing recent research illustrating the implicit links between gender and science.  Here are some excerpts.

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A new study has found that both men and women hold unspoken stereotypes that males are more easily linked with science than females.

The work’s authors say the stereotypes may contribute to continuing underachievement and under-participation among girls and women in science, furthering the idea that science is a male career.

“I think this is pervasive in our culture, but it is changing,” said [Situationist Contributor] Brian Nosek, a University of Virginia psychology professor who led the study. . . .

The findings suggest that 70 percent of respondents harbored implicit stereotypes associating science with males more than with females. About 500,000 people from 34 countries — with roughly half from the United States — took part in the experiment.

The study was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It is a part of Project Implicit, a publicly accessible research project headed by Nosek, Harvard University professor and [Situationist Contributor] Mahzarin Banaji and University of Washington professor Tony Greenwald.

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The study attempted to measure gender bias in science without explicitly asking about the subject. For this study, respondents were asked to sort out four categories — male and female names and science and humanities words. During the first test, participants grouped male names with science words and female names with humanities words; the second time, they did the opposite.

Nosek said the study found that the test-takers could link male names and science words faster than female names and science words. The time difference was generally used to gauge the bias, he said. The gender stereotype could determine how women engage in science disciplines, and gaps in achievement could also reinforce the biases that exist, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, he added.

“It can go both ways,” Nosek said.

In comparing science and math test scores from the separate Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, the implicit bias data showed that boys performed better in math and science in countries whose residents stereotyped the most. The implicit thinking measured in the study may also indicate a country’s health in promoting science to both genders, Nosek said.

//www.astr.ua.edu/4000WS/Photo.html

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Nosek said the investigators are trying to figure out when the stereotypes start pervading people’s psyches. Early data suggest that it could be as early as elementary school.

Getting rid of the stereotypes, Nosek said, will be a tricky thing.

“Even becoming aware of them doesn’t make them disappear,” he said. “Changing them is not so simple.”

* * *

To read the entire article, click here.  To read a sample of related Situationist posts about gender and science, see “The Behavioral Consequences of Unconscious Bias,” “Stereotype Threat and Performance,” “The Gendered Situation of Science & Math,” Gender-Imbalanced Situation of Math, Science, and Engineering,” “Sex Differences in Math and Science,” “You Shouldn’t Stereotype Stereotypes,” “Women’s Situation in Economics,” and “Your Group is Bad at Math.”

Posted in Implicit Associations, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Situational Effect of Groups

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 17, 2009

Silent Crowd (tochis)In his Guardian article, “Hands up if you’re an individual,” Stuart Jeffries offers a brief summary of some social psychology classics.  Below, we have included excerpts.  After reviewing Milgram’s famous experiments on obedience, Jeffries writes:

* * *

This was one of the classic experiments of group psychology, though not all have involved duping volunteers into believing they had electrocuted victims. Group psychology has often involved experiments to explain how individuals’ behaviours, thoughts and feelings are changed by group pressures.

It is generally thought to have originated in 1898 when Indiana University psychologist Norman Triplett asked children to spin a fishing reel as fast as they could. He found that when the children were doing the task together they did so much faster than when alone. Triplett found a similar result when studying cyclists – they tended to record faster times when riding in groups rather than alone, a fact that he explained because the “bodily presence of another contestant participating simultaneously in the race serves to liberate latent energy not ordinarily available”.

More than a century later, social psychology explores how other people make us what we are; how unconscious, sometimes ugly, impulses make us compliant and irrational. Why, for example, do I smoke even though I know it could be fatal? How can there be such a gap between my self-image and my behaviour (this is known as cognitive dissonance)?

Why do high-level committees of supposed experts make disastrous decisions (for example, when a Nasa committee dismissed technical staff warnings that the space shuttle Challenger should not be launched, arguing that technical staff were just the kind of people to make such warnings – this is seen as a classic case of so-called “groupthink”)?

Why do we unconsciously obey others even when this undermines our self-images (this is known as social influence)? What makes us into apathetic bystanders when we see someone attacked in the street – and what makes us have-a-go-heroes? What makes peaceful crowds turn into rioting mobs?

Group psychological studies can have disturbing ramifications. Recently, Harvard psychologist [and Situationist contributor] Mahzarin Banaji used the so-called implicit association test to demonstrate how unconscious beliefs inform our behaviour. [Sh]e concluded from [her] research that the vast majority of white, and many black respondents recognised negative words such as “angry”, “criminal” or “poor” more quickly after briefly seeing a black face than a white one. . . .

* * *

The nature of conformism has obsessed social psychologists for decades. In 1951, psychologist Solomon Asch did an experiment in which volunteers were asked to judge the correct length of a line by comparing it with three sample lines. The experiment was set up so that there was an obviously correct answer. But Asch had riddled a group with a majority of stooges who deliberately chose the wrong answer. The pressure of the majority told on Asch’s volunteers. He found that 74% conformed with the wrong answer at least once, and 32% did so all the time.

What impulses were behind such conformism? Social psychologists have long considered that we construct our identities on the basis of others’ attitudes towards us. Erving Goffman, in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), analysed social encounters as if each person was engaged in a dramatic performance, and suggested that each such actor was a creation of its audience.

Through such performances of self we internalise role expectations and gain positive self-esteem. We cast other individuals and groups in certain roles. Such behaviour may make some of us unconscious racists, but it also lubricates the wheels of social life.

French psychologist Serge Moscovici developed what is called social representation theory, arguing that shared beliefs and explanations held by a group of society help people to communicate effectively with one another. He explored the notion of anchoring, whereby new ideas or events in social life are given comforting redescriptions (or social representations). For example, a group of protesters against a motorway might be described demeaningly by the road lobby as a “rent-a-mob,” while the protesters themselves might anchor themselves more falteringly as “eco-warriors”.

* * *

Social psychologists have also been long-obsessed by the psychology of crowds. In 1895, French social psychologist Gustave le Bon described crowds as mobs in which individuals lost their personal consciences. His book, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, influenced Hitler and led many later psychologists to take a dim view of crowds.

After the war, German critical theorist Theodor Adorno wrote of the destructive nature of “group psychology.” Even as late as 1969, Stanford psychologist [and Situationist contributor] Philip Zimbardo argued that a process of deindividuation makes participants in crowds less rational.

Most recent crowd psychology has not been content to brand crowds necessarily irrational. Instead, it has divided into contagion theory (whereby crowds cause people to act in a certain way), convergence theory (where crowds amount to a convergence of already like-minded individuals) and emergent norm theory (where crowd behaviour reflects the desires of participants, but it is also guided by norms that emerge as the situation unfolds). . . .

In the age of MySpace, Facebook and online dating, group psychologists are now trying to find out what goes on when we present ourselves to the world online, how we are judged for doing so and how groups are formed online. Other social psychology touches on such voguish areas of research as social physics (which contends that physical laws might explain group behaviour) and neuroeconomics (which looks at the role of the brain when we evaluate decisions and interact with each other), but the age-old concerns remain part of our zeitgeist.

* * *

You can read the entire article here.   For a sample of Situationist posts examining the interaction of individuals and groups, see “The Situational Benefits of Outsiders,” Racism Meets Groupism and Teamism,” Racism Meets Groupism and Teamism,” “‘Us’ and ‘Them,’” “The Maverickiness Paradox,” “Four Failures of Deliberating Groups - Abstract,” “Team-Interested Decision Making,” “History of Groupthink,” “Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part I,” and “March Madness,” To read some of the previous Situationist posts describing or discussing classic experiments from soical psychology and related fields, click here.

Posted in Choice Myth, Classic Experiments, Conflict, Implicit Associations, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Mahzarin Banaji’s Situation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 13, 2009

Mahzarin Banaji

From the Harvard Crimson, by Weiqi Zhang, here is a fascinating article titled “A Chance Road to Harvard” about the remarkable journey of Situationist contributor Mahzarin Banaji.

* * *

Fifteen-year-old Mahzarin R. Banaji says she dreamed of living the adventurous life of a secretary upon graduating from high school because she believed that further academic pursuit was useless and was thirsting for an independent life away from her home in Secunderabad, India.

But a little less than a decade later—after a series of self-described “fortuitous” events—Banaji found herself a student at Ohio State University, studying for a Ph.D. in social psychology. And in 2002 she became a Harvard professor at the invitation of University President Drew G. Faust, then-dean of the newly-founded Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Studies.

Today Banaji is the Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics in the psychology department, where she has pioneered the study of unconscious prejudice. “Professor Banaji is one of the most celebrated, most cited, and most influential social psychologists of her generation for good reason—her work on unconscious bias has revolutionized how we think about the topic,” Psychology professor Daniel T. Gilbert wrote in an e-mail.

In his best-selling book “Blink,” Malcolm Gladwell devoted 12 pages to Banaji’s research on the Implicit Association Test, a methodology created by Banaji’s dissertation advisor, Anthony G. Greenwald, in 1994. The test is designed to measure the strength of automatic association and is an important tool in social psychology today.

“Individuals are created and shaped by social circumstances far more than they or their observers are able to recognize,” Banaji wrote in an unpublished biography for the Guggenheim Foundation. “Mainly in retrospect, I see my career as a textbook case of how fortuitous circumstances and responsive bystanders eased the path for my growth.”

THE ROAD TO THE IVORY TOWER

After a few late-night talks with her mother, who never attended college herself, Banaji suspended her plans to enter the typing pool and agreed to give college a try for one semester, after which the two agreed that Banaji would be free to choose her own path. That one semester proved to be worthwhile for Banaji. Initially attracted to Nizam College for its co-educational system and proximity to the largest cricket stadium in Hyderabad, Banaji says she found the cosmopolitan social and academic environment a liberating experience. Her ambition of becoming a secretary aborted, she went on to pursue an M.Phil/Ph.D. in general psychology at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

Mind-opening as JNU would prove to be, Banaji never finished her study there. “There are few occasions in one’s life when a course of action presents itself with such clarity that there is nothing to do but pursue it,” she wrote in her Guggenheim biography. While she was on the train home from New Delhi for the holidays, Banaji purchased five volumes of the Handbook of Social Psychology edited by Lindzey and Aronson, for five dollars, lured not so much by the books’ content as by their low price. By the time she arrived home 24 hours later, she had already devoured an entire volume. She says the combination of a focus on social process with an experimental approach presented by the book particularly appealed to her.

A year later, Banaji boarded a plane to Columbus, Ohio, leaving the psychophysics and Marxist sociology she had been studying in India behind. After receiving her Ph.D. from Ohio State in social psychology, Banaji traveled around the country as research assistant, instructor, and post-doc fellow in several different institutes, before she finally settled at Yale to study unconscious bias.

When the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Studies was founded in 2001, Banaji accepted the invitation to teach at Harvard, becoming a professor in the Department of Psychology and the Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at Radcliffe.

‘THE MADONNA OF OUR FIELD’

Reflecting on her unusual career path, Banaji says she is reluctant to use her own life as a model for students. But she says she is a strong advocate for women in science careers.

Her implicit association experiments have shown that even female scientists can unconsciously associate men with terms like “astronomy” and “chemistry” and women with “music” and “history.”

Former University President Lawrence H. Summers once quoted Banaji on unconscious prejudice against women in science, recommending people to visit the Web site for the Implicit Association Test, which is maintained by Banaji and her former student Brian A. Nosek, now a psychology professor at the University of Virginia. Just months before, Summers had made his now-infamous comments that attributed the dearth of women in top science careers to “issues of intrinsic aptitude.”

Knowing this prejudice well, Banaji says she always goes out of her way to support aspiring female students in science.

“For younger women whose identity as women in science is not fully formed, I need to keep an eye out,” Banaji says. “If somebody like that comes along and asks, ‘I wanna give up mathematics for social studies,’ [I would suggest to her] ‘well, hold on, maybe you should go. But maybe you shouldn’t.’”

“As a young woman, I cannot tell you how she has influenced the generations after her,” Dana R. Carney, a former post-doctoral student of Banaji’s, wrote in an e-mail. “She is like the Madonna of our field: masculine, feminine, fierce, warm, irreverent, creative, inspiring.” Carney is now an assistant professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business. She says she still remembers listening to Banaji’s “mesmerizing” speech as a first year graduate student, five years before she became her post-doc student. “I remember going up to her…and I shook her hand, and I told her that it’s so rare as a young woman you’ve got to model yourself after those people that sort of defy gender stereotype,” Carney recalls. “She is just a scientist. She is not a woman. She is not a man. She is just so inspiring.”

CRITICAL, BUT CARING

In 2006, Banaji journeyed to Philadelphia to pay tribute to her Ph.D. adviser Greenwald, who was receiving the Distinguished Scientist Award, a prestigious prize given by the Society of Experimental Social Psychology. Banaji delivered an address recounting her memory of Greenwald. “It made the entire room of five or six hundred people cry,” Carney says, referring to Banaji’s speech. “It was just mind blowing.”

“Tony Greenwald changed my life,” Banaji says. “He didn’t care what I knew, or how little I knew, or how poor a writer I was…he just wouldn’t let go. If I wrote a draft and I gave it to him he would mark it again, but the 13th draft he would still mark it. Every draft, I saved them all.”

Banaji attributes her pedagogical skill in part to Greenwald, saying that he has had an important impact on how she interacts with her students. Greenwald, however, says he disagrees.

“As a teacher, she has abilities that I barely comprehend,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I have no idea how she acquired her skill, other than to be sure that she didn’t get it from me.”

Greenwald does say that both he and Banaji require their advisees to learn how to thrive while receiving more criticism than praise, as they share the belief that perseverance in the face of criticism is a trait shared by almost all successful scientists.

“She just really had a unique combination of being incredibly rigorous and demanding, but at the same time you knew she supported you and that her heart was with you,” said Curtis D. Hardin, Banaji’s first Ph.D. student and now a professor at Brooklyn College. “For one thing, any paper, from paper in the class to thesis, was met with just incredibly detailed line by line comments, suggestions, questions…this is probably the biggest sign of love because it takes a lot to do that.”

Hardin adds that Banaji and her husband always open their home to graduate students. “She taught me how to cook simple Indian dishes, and we watched elections together. Their company was just so good,” Hardin says. “They knew what it was like to be a starting graduate student.”

Banaji is deeply involved in the undergraduate experience at Harvard, too. As Head Tutor for the Psychology Department, she leads a committee on undergraduate instruction and oversees all students writing theses. She also has three freshman advisees.

“Even though she’s my academic advisor she would talk to me like my old-time friend, and she really cares about how I am doing and my emotional state,” says Nam Hee Kim ’12, one of her advisees.

Looking back, Banaji says that her teaching experience in India at the age of five might have shaped how she communicates with students today. After Banaji and her sister were born, their mother, a school teacher, became unhappy that she had to stay at home and could not teach anymore. She had a carpenter make three small tables and very little chairs, and opened a school in the house.

“I would be home, so I had to deal with all the kids. So my mother would say, ‘you are five years old, you teach this four-year old how to write letters. Every year I was teaching somebody one year younger than I,” Banaji says. “By the time I was eight, I had three years of teaching experience.”

“Now teaching graduate students, you know, is my life,” she adds.

* * *

For a closely related Situationist post, see “The Situation of a Situationist – Mahzarin Banaji.”  Go to Project Implicit here.  Take the Policy IAT here.

To review all of the previous Situationist posts discussing implicit associations click on the “Implicit Associations” category in the right margin, or, for a list of such posts, click here.

Posted in Classic Experiments, Education, Implicit Associations, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

The Situation of a Situationist – Mahzarin Banaji

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 24, 2008

Billy Baker wrote a nice article, titled “She Explores Inner Workings of Bias,” about Situationist contributor Mahzarin Banaji in last week’s Boston Globe.  Here are some excerpts.

* * *

For two decades, Banaji has been a leading researcher into the nature of our implicit, unconscious biases, particularly as they unfold in a social context. Bias, she has found through her experiments into memory and its associations, is a part of being human. Every person divides up the world in certain ways.

Most of the time, she said, people show an unconscious preference toward their social group. By participating in her own experiments, Banaji has found that she favors women over men, and Harvard over MIT. But there are exceptions to these findings, which is what makes this election so intriguing to her.

“There is an aspect of our minds that operates largely in unconscious mode,” she said. “We can say one thing and behave in a way that’s completely opposite.”

In experiments designed to test our unconscious biases, the experimental psychologist has found that 80 percent of whites show a white preference, while 40 percent of blacks show a black preference. But blacks, much more so than whites, are more vocal in saying that they prefer blacks.

So if we say one thing and do another, what will really happen come Election Day? Is Senator Barack Obama at risk for the so-called Bradley Effect, where people will say they’re going to vote for a black candidate and then won’t? . . . .

“I don’t think so,” she said as she fiddled with her tortoise-shell eyeglasses. This election year has already flown in the face of expectations, she said.

“We might even see some reverse-Bradley”, said Banaji. “Who would have thought we’d have an election where the younger white men all dropped out early?” With a tone of cautious optimism, she adds: “That tells us that, in our conscious minds, we’ve come a long way.” But our unconscious, she has found, is often unpredictable. Banaji uses something called an Implicit Association Test – rapid-fire quizzes based on word and image associations – to study a person’s bias. Every time she develops a new test, she and her colleagues take bets on what they think the results will say. “I’m continually wrong,” she said.

In a recent study, she asked participants to choose a quiz team mate from two candidates: an overweight person and a thin person. The overweight person, they were told, had a higher IQ. The majority chose the thin person.

“Our biases are not rational,” she said. “They lead us to do things that are not even in our own best interest.”

Banaji came to her line of work naturally and, not surprisingly, somewhat unconsciously. She grew up a Zoroastrian – a small religion and philosophy with only about 100,000 followers left in the world – in Hyderabad, India. “It was an unusual upbringing,” she said. “You’re a part of a community of 6,000 living in a city of 6 million and nobody knows about you.”

Still, she said, “It never struck me consciously that I was interested in these questions because of my own experience of being different.”

People like understanding their biases, she believes, just as medical patients want to know their risk factors. Over 7 million tests have been completed on Project Implicit, a Harvard website she helped create to allow people to participate in the Implicit Association Tests – and gives the test-taker an immediate analysis of their biases. (It can be found at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/.)

For all her years of research, and her outsider background, Banaji admits that she is not without her own biases. But she thinks that by acknowledging them, people can better attempt to counter them.

She uses the screensaver on her office computer to display images of people from far-flung places, or in unfamiliar roles (a female construction worker, say), in an effort to rewire her associations.

“You can change a behavior even if your attitude doesn’t change,” she said. One example? She encourages people to smile at a random old person on the street.

“And maybe the change in behavior will provoke a change in attitude.”

* * *

Read the entire article here.  Go to Project Implicit here.

Take the Policy IAT here.

For some posts examining the the role of implicit associations in elections, see “The Situation of Being ‘(un)American,’Patricia Devine on Resisting Implicit Associations,” The Interior Situation of Undecided Voters,” On Being a Mindful Voter,”Lopez-Torres, Justice Scalia, and the Situation of Elections,” “Your Brain on Politics,” “Implicit Associations in the 2008 Presidential Election,”The Situation of Political Animals,” “Political Psychology in 2008,” “Perceptions of Racial Divide,The Psychology of Barack Obama as the Antichrist,” and “The Interior Situation of Undecided Voters.”

To review all of the previous Situationist posts discussing implicit associations click on the “Implicit Associations” category in the right margin, or, for a list of such posts, click here. For other Situationist posts on the 2008 Presidential Election, click here.

Posted in Implicit Associations, Life, Politics, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Being “(un)American”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 13, 2008

Shankar Vedantam has written another terrific (situationist) article, “Does Your Subconscious Think Obama Is Foreign?,” published in today’s Washington Post.  Here are some excerpts.

* * *

A few years ago, psychologists [and Situational contributor] Mahzarin Banaji and Thierry Devos showed the names of a number of celebrities to a group of volunteers and asked them to classify the well-known personalities as American or non-American. The list included television personality Connie Chung and tennis star Michael Chang, both Asian Americans, as well as British actors Hugh Grant and Elizabeth Hurley. The volunteers had no trouble identifying Chung and Chang as American and Grant and Hurley as foreigners.

The psychologists then asked the group which names they associated with iconic American symbols such as the U.S. flag, the Capitol building and Mount Rushmore, and which ones they associated with generically foreign symbols such as the United Nations building in Geneva, a Ukrainian 100-hryven bill and a map of Luxembourg.

The psychologists found that the participants, who were asked to answer quickly, were dramatically quicker to associate the American symbols with the British actors, and the foreign symbols with the Asian Americans. The results suggest that on a subconscious level people were using ethnicity as a proxy for American identity and equating whites — even white foreigners — with things American.

The psychologists initially assumed that this bias began and ended with Asian Americans and would not apply to other ethnic groups. But in another experiment involving famous black athletes around the time of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, they found that the same pattern applied to African Americans. . . .

“The reason this is powerful is it shows our minds will not just distort our preferences but distort facts,” said Banaji, who works at Harvard. “African Americans in their [own] minds are fully American, but not in the minds of whites.”

The experiments, based on tests that are accessible at http://implicit.harvard.edu, have provoked controversy — especially in terms of what they mean. It may embarrass people when they subconsciously associate whites with being American, but does that matter? If people have no trouble distinguishing Americans and foreigners in their conscious minds, why should we care about their subconscious tendencies?

It may matter a lot when it comes to voting behavior, the researchers said.

In a new series of experiments, Devos has shown that the “white equals American” bias could well be playing a powerful role in the presidential election.

* * *

[The article then summarizes Devos’s (and Debbie Ma‘s) latest research indicating (1) that people more quickly associate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Sen. John McCain, and Tony Blair with being American than they do Sen. Barack Obama and (2) that the subconscious associations mattered (that is, that both Republicans and Democrats “who were slower to see Obama as American on a subconscious level were less likely to be willing to vote for the senator from Illinois than people who more easily associated him with American symbols”), (3) that although this source of voting bias is subtle, it is still “clearly a drag on Obama’s prospects,” and (4) that it “may help explain why Obama has proved vulnerable to negative messages that question his identity and his loyalty to America.”]

* * *

“We cannot think of him as frightening or a likely criminal — he is the antithesis of that,” Banaji said. “So when the mind goes searching for reasons to distrust him, the first thing it lands on are the foreign connections” — Indonesia and Africa, places to which Obama has ties.

“Suggesting Obama is foreign or unknown offers a cover for racism,” she said. “You can’t say he is black and unfit to be president, but you can say that he is Muslim and therefore unfit to be president.”

* * *

Read the entire Vedantam article here.

Take our Policy IAT here.

For some posts examining the the role of implicit associations in elections, see “Patricia Devine on Resisting Implicit Associations,” The Interior Situation of Undecided Voters,” On Being a Mindful Voter,”Lopez-Torres, Justice Scalia, and the Situation of Elections,” “Your Brain on Politics,” “Implicit Associations in the 2008 Presidential Election,”The Situation of Political Animals,” “Political Psychology in 2008,” “Perceptions of Racial Divide,The Psychology of Barack Obama as the Antichrist,” and “The Interior Situation of Undecided Voters.”

To review all of the previous Situationist posts discussing implicit associations click on the “Implicit Associations” category in the right margin, or, for a list of such posts, click here. For other Situationist posts on the 2008 Presidential Election, click here.

Posted in Choice Myth, Ideology, Implicit Associations, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Interior Situation of Undecided Voters

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 23, 2008

From Anne McIlroy’s article, titled “You May Know How You’ll Vote Before You Know It,” in the Science section of the Globe and Mail:

Undecided about how you will vote if there is a federal election this fall? New research suggests you may not know your own mind.

Voters make decisions at an unconscious level before they deliberate about their options, University of Western Ontario psychologist Bertram Gawronski said.

In the latest edition of the journal Science, he and two Italian researchers report on a technique that may allow pollsters one day to read the minds of undecided voters and accurately predict whom they will end up supporting.

* * *

In the Science article, he and colleagues Luciano Arcuri and Silvia Galdi at the University of Padova describe an experiment conducted in Vicenza, Italy. They interviewed 129 residents about a proposed enlargement of a U.S. military base in their community and asked if they were if favour, opposed or undecided about the expansion.

The volunteers also took a computer-based test.

For those who were undecided, the speed at which they linked pictures of the military base to positive words such as “happy” or “luck,” compared with negative words such as “awful” or “pain,” proved to be predictive of the decision they eventually made about the expansion. The test revealed what Dr. Gawronski and his colleagues call positive or negative automatic mental associations.

Other researchers, including Harvard University psychologist [and Situationist contributor] Mahzarin Banaji, have used a similar technique to get at the subtle, ingrained biases that people are not aware of, but which may shape their behaviour.

* * *

From Stefan Lovgren’s article, “‘Undecided” Voters’ Minds Already Made Up, Study Says,” in National Geographic News:

* * *

[Situationist contributor] Timothy Wilson, . . . the author of the book Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious [click on book's cover in right margin for more information], said there are two interpretations of the study results.

“It may be that participants really had made up their minds and just didn’t know it yet,” said Wilson, who was not involved with the study but wrote an accompanying article in this week’s Science.

“Or they may have been leaning in one direction unconsciously and that biased how they interpreted the information they got about the issue in subsequent days.”

Gawronski, the study co-author, says automatic mental associations play a particularly important role in a person’s decision-making when it comes to ambiguous situations, such as political debates.

“In a debate between Obama and McCain, it may not be entirely clear who showed the better performance,” he said.

“But undecided voters with more favorable associations with McCain may see him as the one who did the better job” and vice versa, Gawronski said.

“It’s this biased perception of events that then provide the basis of their future decisions,” he added.

* * *

To download a pdf of the Science article (Silvia Galdi, Luciano Arcuri, & Bertram Gawronski, Automatic mental associations predict future choices of undecided decision-makers, 321 Science 1100-1102 (2008)), click here.

To listen to an NPR Science Friday interview of Dr. Gawronski and discussion of the undecided-voter research, click here.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Voting for a Face,” “The Situation of Swift-Boating,” On Being a Mindful Voter,” “Implicit Associations in the 2008 Presidential Election,” “The Situation of Political Animals,” and “Your Brain on Politics.” For other posts on the Situation of politics, click here.

Posted in Abstracts, Choice Myth, Implicit Associations, Politics, Social Psychology, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Interior Situation of Suicide

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 27, 2008

The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine included an article by Peter Bebergal, titled “On the Edge.” (The teaser reads as follows: “Can a test reveal if a person has a subconscious desire to kill himself? Peter Bebergal, who lost a brother to suicide, goes inside Mass. General, where Harvard researchers are trying to find out.”) Here are a few excerpts.

* * *

Four years after my brother’s death, Harvard researchers at MGH are experimenting with a test they think could help clinicians determine just that. It focuses on a patient’s subconscious thoughts, and if it can be perfected, these researchers say it could give hospitals more of a legal basis for admitting suicidal patients.

* * *

This missing piece in the suicidal puzzle is what prompted the innovative research study now in its final phase at MGH. The study, led by Dr. Matthew Nock, an associate professor in the psychology department at Harvard University, is called the Suicide Implicit Association Test. It’s a variation of the Implicit Association Test, or IAT, which was invented by Anthony Greenwald at the University of Washington and “co-developed” by [Situationist Contributor] Dr. Mahzarin Banaji, now a psychology professor at Harvard who works a few floors above Nock on campus. The premise is that test takers, by associating positive and negative words with certain images (or words) – for example, connecting the word “wonderful” with a grouping that contains the word “good” and a picture of a EuropeanAmerican – reveal their unconscious, or implicit, thoughts. The critical factor in the test is not the associations themselves, but the relative speed at which those connections are made. (If you’re curious, take a sample IAT test online at implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/.)

The IAT itself is not new – it was created in 1998 – and has been used to evaluate unconscious bias against African-Americans, Arabs, fat people, and Judaism. But critics question whether the test is actually practical, and up until now no one has tried to apply it to suicide prevention. As part of his training, Nock worked extensively with adolescent self-injurers – self-injury, such as cutting and burning, is an important coping method for those who engage in it, though they are often unlikely to acknowledge it. Nock thought that the IAT could serve as a behavioral measure of who is a self-injurer and whether such a person was in danger of continuing the behavior, even after treatment. In their first major study, Nock and Banaji asserted that the IAT could be adapted to show who was inclined to be self-injurious and who was not. And more important, they said, the test could reveal who was in danger of future self-injury.

The next step, Nock realized, was to use the test to determine, from a person’s implicit thoughts, whether someone who had prior suicidal behavior was likely to continue to be suicidal. It would give doctors a third component, along with self-reporting and clinician reporting, and result in a more complete picture of a patient. Nock doesn’t assume that a test like the IAT would be 100 percent accurate, but he believes it would have predictive ability. “It is not a lie detector,” he says. “But in an ideal situation, a clinician who is struggling with a decision to admit a potentially suicidal patient to the hospital, or with an equally difficult decision to discharge a patient from the hospital following a potentially lethal suicide attempt, the IAT could provide additional information about whether the clinician should admit or keep that patient in the hospital.”

Over two years, researchers at MGH asked patients who had attempted suicide if they would be willing to participate in the test. About two-thirds of them agreed (some 200 patients) – even though some had tried killing themselves just hours before – and after answering a battery of questions about their thoughts, sat with a laptop and took the IAT.

During one test, a person was shown two sets of words on a screen, one in the upper left corner, one in the upper right. A single word then appeared in the center, and the test taker was asked to indicate with a keystroke the corner containing the word that connected to the center word. The corner sets were drawn from two groups of words (one group was “escape” and “stay,” and another was “me” and “not me”). In one version, the sets were “escape/not me” and “stay/me,” and the series of words that appeared in the center included, among others, “quit,” “persist,” “myself,” and “them.” The correct answers called for “quit” to be associated with the side that had “escape,” for “myself” to be matched with the side that had “me,” and so forth. In theory, a delay in answering on “quit,” even if the person got it right, could reveal that he was associating the idea of “quit” with the idea of himself. The word sets varied depending on the test, and bias could emerge in a positive or negative way. For example, if the sets were “escape/me” and “stay/not me” and a person hesitated in correctly matching “myself” to the side with “me,” it could reveal that he was associating himself with the idea of “stay.”

For about the next five months, Nock and his research team at Harvard will analyze all the data collected from MGH. If they think their findings show promise, they will follow up and run their experiment again to see if it yields similar results. If it does, they may seek to implement the test at an area hospital. For now, following up with patients will be pivotal in assessing the test’s effectiveness. Tragically, though, the only way researchers will know for sure whether the test can predict behavior is if a key number of patients attempt suicide again.

* * *

Nock says it’s still too early to tell how well the test will predict someone’s likelihood of engaging in suicidal behavior. But he says the hope is that the IAT will be able to record subtle distinctions between those who are at risk and those who aren’t by measuring how “positively or negatively people value the option of suicide as a potential response to their intolerable distress.

* * *

We recommend the entire article, which you can link to here. For a collection of Situationist posts about implicit associations, click here.

Posted in Implicit Associations, Life | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

On Being a Mindful Voter

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 3, 2008

Our intense scrutiny of the presidential candidates has produced a relentless stream of questions, some thoughtful and relevant, others spectacularly irrelevant and even embarrassing: Why are you not more likable, Hillary? How good a Christian can he be with the name Hussein?

With our focus solely on the candidates, however, we have neglected to examine the other powerful determinant of the election: the state of our own minds. And yet we know that the voter’s mind, the very thing doing the questioning, probing and judging, is itself prone to limitations no less profound than those of the candidates themselves.

Keeping one’s own mind “in mind” and being aware of its limitations is the first step toward making a conscious choice of who is best for us, the country and the world.

Human minds have a remarkable capability for self-reflection — the envy of every chimpanzee. This fanciest bell and whistle of the brain bestows on us the ability to consciously look into our own mind, recognize its contents, report on it and even change it.

As remarkable as this ability is, however, it tends to mask the fact that we are nonetheless unaware of the vast majority of our minds’ work.

It keeps us from knowing, and therefore from accepting, that the reasons we offer for our choices may not actually be driving those choices. This blindness should not be underestimated, because it is always accompanied by an insidious if honest denial of facts.

The mind sciences tell us much about the invisible mental gymnastics that end up dictating what we like and dislike, what we believe to be true and not, what drives us toward particular people and their ideologies.

My colleagues and I have posed two kinds of questions to understand these two sides of the mind, the conscious and the less conscious. Measuring the conscious side is familiar, tried and true. In the context of race, we ask, “Whom do you like? Whom will you vote for? Why?”

The other question is not only unfamiliar, it isn’t a question at all. To measure race preferences that may be less conscious, we measure the speed and accuracy of the mind at work. How quickly and how accurately do we — can we — perform the simple task of associating black and white with both good and bad? In the gender case, do we associate female or male more easily with “commander-in-chief”?

Such tests do not seek a reasoned answer but an automatic one, a response we form without “thinking.” From such responses we can derive an estimate of our less-conscious likes and dislikes, called automatic preferences. If the results of the two tests agree; that is, if you say you prefer black and you show the same level of preference for black on the automatic test, the two are boringly consistent.

But in ordinary people like me, we often don’t see consistency. Rather we see disparities between what we say and what we reveal. I, for example, report a seemingly genuine attitude of equal liking for black and white, but the automatic test reveals that I have a preference for white over black (as do the majority of whites and Asians in the United States and at least a third of African-Americans). Likewise, although I might express and even have an automatic preference for women, I struggle more than I’d like when I am asked to associate “female” with commander-in-chief.

Such disparity tells me that my spoken preference and beliefs, my intended egalitarian values are out of sync with my less explicit, less conscious preference for white (or for a male leader).

It tells me that I may not be fully aware of who I am or wish to be. What I take away from such a fracture in my own mind is a skepticism that I am color-blind or that I can look past gender to the truly competent candidate. Without awareness of the slippage in my own mind, I am likely to believe that all the relevant data are embedded in the candidates, not in me.

* * *

In the Democratic primaries, we have been given two candidates who represent what was unthinkable in any previous election. Both represent what it means to be American in the broadest, most optimistic sense possible.

One represents the gender of half the people of this country and half the people of the world, but who after 232 years of independence is the first viable female candidate for president.

We also have a candidate who captures another aspect of a changing America: a person with parents from two continents, who is both black and white, from two cultures, rich and poor, with their own languages and religions.

But wait, we have a third candidate, whose demographics represent the familiar — a white, Southern male candidate — but whose actions reflect virtues so powerful that we might indeed set aside the strengths of the first two.

Everything that is tribal and ignorant about us should move us away from them. And that’s the mind’s natural, unexamined inclination. But I see millions taking these candidates seriously. The crossing over is thrilling to watch. Black, male and young, casting for Clinton. Women, white and elderly, voting for Obama. Northerners, the rich supporting Edwards.

These voters have overcome the easy inclination to go with the familiar past. They have broken a tribal cord that bound their predecessors. Their minds have seen through those candidates who create false fears of the enemy outside, who even now fail to recognize what is clearly a futile and unjust war, who lie about taxes, who hold religious beliefs contradictory to physical reality.

* * *

The next election will again be determined not by Democrats or Republicans but by the sizable bloc of independents. Independents cannot be proud of the opportunities they missed four and eight years ago.

But now, there’s a new moment. From the research evidence, I know that to support any of the three Democratic candidates will not come easily. They demand that you give up a preference for the status quo, for what looks familiar, for what sounds superficially “presidential.”

* * *
If that tribal preference is at all attractive, any of the throwbacks on the Republican slate will do.

But if Americans are ready to do what they have occasionally done before . . . the time to cast a similar vote is 2008.

Hillary, Barack and John, as much as we are testing them, are testing us.

* * *

To read the entire editorial, click here. To visit the Project Implicit website and find out more about implicit associations, click here. To review previous Situationist posts discussing implicit associations click on the “Implicit Associations” category in the right margin or, for a list of such posts, click here.

For a sample of previous posts examining situational elements of voting or, specifically, the 2008 presidential election, see “Implicit Associations in the 2008 Presidential Election,” “Lopez-Torres, Justice Scalia, and the Situation of Elections,” “Heart Brain or Wallet?” “Your Brain on Politics,” “Al Gore – The Situationist” and “Irrelevant Third Options in Presidential Campaigns.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Implicit Associations, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

 
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