Banaji & Greenwald on Edge – Part I
Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 10, 2008
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ANTHONY GREENWALD: In 1900, mathematician David Hilbert made a list of 23 recognized questions that the field of mathematics should regard as important unanswered questions and, lo and behold, many mathematicians decided to work on those questions. We psychologists do not have such widely agreed-upon lists of questions, but we do have a continuing good source of questions—the questions often come to us from society.
Our study of prejudice, for example, comes out of trying to deal with policy questions that leaders deal with and that we think need to be informed by science. Prejudice was a topic I discovered relatively late in my career. My dissertation advisor, Gordon Allport, may be best known for his 1954 book on prejudice, The Nature of Prejudice. However, when Allport was my advisor, in the early 1960s, he was no longer interested in the topic. I eventually came to an interest in prejudice because the work on attitudes that Mahzarin and I were doing in the mid 1990s produced a technique that turned out to shed new light on phenomena related to prejudice. The new technique, the Implicit Association Test, was so generative of research that it produced a much more active collaboration than we had prior to that point.
MAHZARIN BANAJI: We straddle a few different worlds within the science. We are interested in the mind as all psychologists are in one sense or another. We are interested in the social world outside the individual’s mind. And we are interested in building a science of what these two do and say to each other. We are specifically interested in these questions as they pertain to the topic of group membership: how does our thinking change because of who the “other” is? Does it matter that the other is male or female, black or white? Does this change if I’m myself male or female, black or white? In what ways, and why? To do so requires us to figure out new ways to peer inside the mind and these days, we have the possibility of looking at the brain directly.
We are at the same moment in our science that the older sciences were many generations ago when they first began to test the nature of the physical world. We’ve studied the mind only for the past 100 years but we are already at the stage of designing instruments that can look much farther than before. I have become fascinated with the history of the development of the telescope in part because I think we are at that moment where we are developing techniques that allow us to use tools , turn them inward, and look at the universe between our ears. To find that it is just as vast, just as complex, and just as tractable. This of course is immensely pleasing to people who want to be able to understand something as ephemeral and seemingly intractable as the mind.
My personal story is that I was a student in India who had studied some psychology, but veered off to questions of history and society. I ended up at a Marxist university where I learned a lot about sociology, but found its theories and methods unappealing. That is when I discovered that there was a field called experimental social psychology that its headquarters were located in the United States, in Columbus Ohio. I packed my bags, showed up at Ohio State, and was fortunate to end up in the particular lab that I did, where I learned what I know and use today.
One of the oldest questions in social psychology is the one that interested Stanley Milgram when he asked: Why is it that reasonable ordinary Germans did what they did? I think we are asking a similar kind of question, but with a different set of methods. Ultimately the interest here is in how our behavior is out of line with our conscious intentions. By demonstrating that dissociation, between our conscious and less conscious views, we tap into fundamental aspects of the mind.
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