The Situationist

The Situation of ‘Common Sense’

Posted by Jerry Kang on July 6, 2010

On April 15, I had the pleasure of participating in a Collaborative training symposium on Implicit Bias and Eyewitness Identification, conducted for Connecticut prosecutors and public defenders.  I spoke on the topic of implicit bias, a core research interest.  It was an interesting conversation, and the engagement was intelligent, thoughtful, and public minded.

Afterwards, Chris Nolan, a journalist for the Connecticut Law Tribune, interviewed me over the phone for a long while, and I tried to give him more information about the relevant science and policy implications.  He wrote up an article, which spawned a strident response by Karen Lee Torre.

She was pretty darn angry.  She called me a “known left-winger,” “liberal political operative,” “an active Obama booster,” shoveling “crock,” “junk social science,” with “comical empirics.”  I assume that after looking at my vita, she concluded that I “never held a real job,” and worse predictably clerked for the “9th Circuit.”  She fantasized about having New Haven firefighters “tear [my] critical race theory to shreds and eat [me] for lunch.”

I thought this was just another example of tendentious blogosphere huffing.  But then I realized the Ms. Torre is an attorney and that this was printed in the Connecticut Law Tribune.  And I let out a heavy sigh.  When really smart people with loads of education turn immediately into name-calling, I can’t but help get pessimistic about the possibility of open-minded, good faith talk about how to make our country a better place, more consistent in practice with its noble ideals.

But I guess I’m at heart an optimist, so I thought this might be converted to a learning moment.

Implicit Bias

There’s loads of scholarly information on implicit bias, the subject I lectured about.  Accessible accounts as well as demonstrations can be found at Project Implicit (run by Harvard, U. of Washington, and Virginia).  There’s far more many papers than you’d want to read on my own research site.  But if you’re really curious about the “junk” I’m supposedly peddling, take a look at a primer I wrote for judges in conjunction with the National Center for State Courts.   Decide for yourself whether it sounds nuts.

Nolan Article on “Checking Biases”

Chris Nolan’s article (Checking Biases at the Courtroom Door, June 7, 2010, not online) — which sparked the outraged response from Karen Lee Torre — relayed various things I communicated to him.  It’s mostly right, but there’s always a danger of meaning getting lost in translation.   As an academic talking with the popular media, this is an unavoidable risk.  Let me highlight a few claims, provide references to the actual studies, and make clarifications and corrections along the way.  Again, the goal here is to be as transparent as possible.

Shooter Bias

Nolan described the findings of shooter bias.  It turns out that when we play a video game, where the rule is to hit one key “shoot” if we see a person holding a gun, and another key “holster” if we see a harmless object (e.g. phone or wallet), most of us show a bias in how we shoot depending on whether the person holding the object is Black or White.

*See Joshua Correll et al., The police officer’s dilemma: Using ethnicity to disambiguate potentially threatening individuals, 83 J. PERSON. & SOC. PSYCHOL. 1314 (2002). See also Anthony G. Greenwald et al. Targets of discrimination: Effects of race on responses to weapons holders, 39 J. EXPERIMENTAL SOC. PSYCHOL. 399 (finding similar results).

Nolan described this as having been demonstrated with police officers.   As a clarification, most of these studies have been done with non police officers, such as students and lay folks recruited to participate in psychology experiments. Some work has been done with actual officers. There, researchers have found mixed results–sometimes police officers show the same bias; sometimes less so.

*See E. Ashby Plant & B. Michelle Peruche, 16 PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCE 180, 181 (2005).  In another paper, police officers showed a similar tendency to be faster to respond to armed Blacks (compared to armed Whites) and unarmed Whites (compared to unarmed Blacks), but did not exhibit racial bias on the arguably more important criterion of accuracy: unarmed Blacks were not more likely to be “shot” than unarmed Whites.  See Joshua Correll et al. Across the thin blue line: Police officers and racial bias in the decision to shoot., 92 J. PERSONALITY & SOC. PSYCHOL. 1006, 1010-1013, 1016-1017 (2007) (describing results from two studies).

Greater Punishment for those with Afro-Centric Facial Features

Nolan also reported some work that showed differential sentencing.   Although there are a few papers relevant, I was referring to this particular paper:

Irene V. Blair et al., The Influence of Afrocentric Facial Features in Criminal Sentencing, J. PSYCHOL. SCI. 674, 677 (2004) (finding no disparate sentencing on the basis of race in Florida data set, but finding that within each racial category, White or Black, those individuals with more Afrocentric facial features received harsher sentences).

Jennifer Eberhardt has also produced relevant work here, which found that among African American defendants convicted of murdering White victims, death sentences were given to 58% of those physically rated as more stereotypically Black.  For those who looked less “Black”, the rate was only 24%.

See Jennifer L. Eberhardt et al., Looking Deathworthy:Perceived Stereotypicality of Black Defendants Predicts Capital-Sentencing Outcomes, 17 Psychol. Sci. 383 (2006).

Liberals and their Biases

Finally, Nolan pointed out that not only prosecutors but also public defenders have implicit biases.  Indeed, I regularly say “no one is immune.”  He added that “liberals tend to have fewer biases,” which is probably not exactly what I would have emphasized.   The more important point is that no one seems to be free from implicit biases–they are just the product of living in the world that exists.  One way to think about it is breathing in pollution, which leaves particulate matter in our lungs.  It’s not entirely novel or surprising that you might have some nasty stuff inside.  Capital punishment lawyers have implicit biases.  Judges have implicit biases.  Asian students at Yale showed implicit stereotypes about Asians, and so on.  Now, this doesn’t mean that there’s no differences among individuals or groups.  For instance, we tend to have better implicit attitudes about the groups we belong to.  Now, back to Nolan’s point.

In the most exhaustive statistical analysis of the implicit bias data collected at Project Implicit, Brian Nosek and colleagues cranked out all kinds of correlations.  Here’s a telling set of findings.  One implicit association test measured the implicit attitude (positive or negative) that participants showed to Arab-Muslims.  Those who self-described as strong liberals showed a bias of 0.34 (these are Cohen d units, but that doesn’t concern us now).  By contrast, those who described themselves as strong conservatives showed a bias of 1.13 (higher means more bias).  We see similar findings regarding, say, implicit attitudes toward African Americans (strong liberals at 0.08; strong conservatives at 0.74).

See Brian A. Nosek et al., Pervasiveness and Correlates of Implicit Attitudes and Stereotypes, 18 EURO. REV. SOCIAL PSYCH. 1 (2007) (Table 6).

There are two points worth making.  First, strong liberals are probably committed to having zero biases not only against Blacks but also against Arab-Muslims.  They want to be colorblind.  Yet they still registered a non-trivial attitudinal difference.  See, no one is immune.

Second, a part of me would like it if there were no such liberal versus conservative differences, if implicit biases were somehow randomly distributed regardless of self-described political leanings.  That would make the reform project easier since there would be less defensiveness on all sides.  But here’s the thing with science.  You just can’t make the data come out anyway you want. You can’t just invoke “common sense” and simply declare the state of the world.  We don’t do that with evidence-based medicine.  Why should we do that with social policy?

Ms. Torre’s Common Sense

It’s well within Karen Lee Torre’s First Amendment rights to shout out her opinion.  She doesn’t quite get to defamation, and no doubt I’ve become a limited public figure in this context.  But the great thing about the Internet is that counter-speech is relatively cheap.   And instead of getting into a fight with people being shredded into bits and eaten for lunch, I’m hoping for a genuine discussion–where facts matter.  There are skeptical scientists and lawyers who engage more on the merits.  That’s good, that’s what we should be doing.  And I don’t presume to have all the answers.  But ad hominem dismissals are fundamentally unhelpful.

In her closing, Ms. Torre writes:

“I know better than to judge any book by its cover. But I’ve also lived long enough and seen enough to know that if somebody, black or white, is walking toward me in a darkened parking lot, and he’s got pants below his butt and a cap on sideways, chances are he’s not fresh back from Oxford.

That’s my critical common sense theory. And it, in fact, saved me from an attempted mugging just last year.”

I’m glad that Ms. Torre avoided violence.  But, there’s too much social science for me to assume that race did not make any difference–that it was all about baggy pants.   A Black person is viewed as more threatening, less smiling, more aggressive than a White person even holding all other attributes constant — including attractiveness, clothing, etc.  But somehow Ms. Torre trusts her “common sense” and needs no data, no science, no research.  She seems not to recognize what Gordon Allport, a renowned 20th century psychologist, observed back in 1958:

“Prejudice is not ‘the invention of liberal intellectuals.’ It is simply an aspect of mental life that can be studied as objectively as any other.”

No doubt Allport could be attacked as a “Harvard” hack.  But what about this following quote:

“Common sense is sometimes another word for prejudice . . . .”

That comes from Judge Richard Posner….

See American Amusement Machine Association v. Kendrick (7th Cir. 2001).

…. although he has been sounding a little lefty re financial regulation recently.

* * *

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see Why Race May Influence Us Even When We “Know” It Doesn’t,” Perceptions of Racial Divide,” Black History is Now,” Jennifer Eberhardt’s “Policing Racial Bias” – Video,” The Situation of Litigators,” “Tierney’s Skepticism at the New York Times,” Measuring Implicit Attitudes,” What Are the Legal Implications of Implicit Biases?,” Confronting the Backlash against Implicit Bias,” Legal Academic Backlash – Abstract,” “Naïve Cynicism in Election 2008: Dispositionism v. Situationism?,”  “Implicit Bias and Strawmen,”and “The Situation of Situation in Employment Discrimination Law – Abstract.”


9 Responses to “The Situation of ‘Common Sense’”

  1. Tamara Piety said

    Terrific rejoinder to what sounds like an unfounded attack. Folks like Torre I have to guess are motivated in part by concerns about the legitimacy of their current practices, not to mention the possibility of neutrality and of “color blindness.” I think a couple of the reasons people get so defensive (and offensive) around this work is that it (a) challenges fundamental belief systems which in turn undermines the person’s sense of certainty or comfort in the world in general, even as to other, apparently completely unrelated issues; and (b) it undermines people’s sense of control. The phenomenon you described as uncovered in the research is, as you say, impossible to completely purge oneself of. Imperfection, or a lack of perfect coherence between goals and execution would similarly seem to be a fundamental aspect of human life and any human institution. Yet with respect to the criminal justice system you face enormous hostility and push back when you point out what may be systemic problems with decision-making. I think that is because the ritualized punishment of some gives the rest of us the comforting illusion that bad behavior (ultimately) will generate punishment, that we are or can be made “safe” and other ideas. Few people want to believe they are biased. It offends their sense of self – both on the level of esteem and of self-regulation. the irony is that the resistance to the evidence ultimately makes us more vulnerable to systemic mistakes, to prosecuting the wrong people, etc. thereby undermining the very legitimacy of the current practices some of these people are trying desperately to maintain. And that distinction about science – that you can’t just make it come out any way you like – I think has maybe never been so vulnerable in the public mind as it is now. (But maybe that is a present-ism bias and it has always been this way! :-))

  2. […] bias is one of the things that makes us all alike. There's plenty of research on the topic of "implicit bias." It's normal, natural—part of our genetic […]

  3. […] The Situation of 'Common Sense' « The Situationist […]

  4. Joe said

    Your critic was right on all counts.

  5. JThom said

    Unfortunately for Kang’s theory, it is a statistical fact that there is a much higher rate of criminality among the black population than the caucasion population. Those statistics are not only undeniable but used by black leaders all the time in the call for more social spending, programs, yadda yadda. Let’s put Kang in the same parking lot that the columnist Torre was in. Say it’s late and dark and there are no security guards or attendants. If a 50-year-old white guy is walking toward Kang, and he is wearing a business suit and carrying a briefcase, what would Kang presume? If, however, a young black male (say 19 or 20 years old)is walking toward Kang, and he has on no-tie sneakers, baggy jeans, and a doo rag on his head, would Kang presume the same thing as he presumed about the business-suited white guy? If Kang made equal presumptions about the two men, then he’d be an unmitigated fool. And, given the statistics, Kang might not only be deprived of his wallet, but of his very life. It is neither “racist” nor “biased” to make rational and reasonable presumptions based on the social realities in this country and the statistical facts. I’ll take Torre’s common sense over Kang’s idealistic foolishness any day. I might live longer.

  6. Kipstan said

    What a bunch of BS. Why isn’t Kang studying bias and hate on the part of blacks toward whites? Why is it so one-sided? He acts like the only bigots and racists are white people. What does Kang thing about the New Black Panthers menacing people at voting locations? What does Kang think about minority bias and resentment toward whites, such as that which was on full display in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, when thousands of blacks were dancing in the streets when OJ was acquitted? Anyone with half a brain knew (or at least had reason to strongly suspect) that Simpson was not only a violent savage wife-beater, but a cold-blooded double murderer. Silly, naive academics like Kang are one of the things wrong with this country and taking it right down the drain. Between white liberal professors and the race pimps in the black community (like Al Sharpton), they are making the country more race-conscious, not post-racial. Until the black community ends its overall, self-destructive behavior (unwed teenaged births by multiple sires, fatherless homes, school drop out habits, crime,welfare dependency, playing the race card, etc), they are going to continue to face negative attitudes on the part of other groups. That’s not “bias” – that’s just plain truth. Kang needs to wake up and smell the truth.

  7. Tamara Piety said

    Uh….Kipstan. I think you don’t understand the significance of the studies Kang reports on. He didn’t say any such thing as only white people had bias. I think you must not have read this post. He is reporting on empirical research. What he reports is WHAT THE EXPERIMENTS SHOWED. And he is clear that he believes everyone has bias. Another poster commented on the “common sense” about reacting differently on the basis of race and dress to a man approaching you in a dark parking lot. The problem with the example is that there were several factors (age, dress, etc), which mean you can’t control for just the impression caused by race. If someone reacts to a middle-aged Black man in a suit carrying a brief case as if he were a potential mugger then you have a basis for suspecting that it is race not any other factor that is contributing to the reaction. That is the sort of experiment Kang is reporting on. One of the problems we have with “bias” is that we think that it interferes with on the merits evaluations, that it is an emotional reaction. And that is partly true. But it is also true that not all of our emotional reactions are wrong. But if we are making decisions that are unreasoned and that cause harm to others that are without foundation, I’d say that is a problem. It sounds like you were upset about some of the reaction in the Black community to the Simpson case. But I think that reaction was complicated. Many didn’t want to believe he was guilty. Surely you’ve experienced that when someone you admired let you down. And some Blacks in LA were victims of (some) police brutality. (Remember the Ramparts investigation? And I don’t think all cops or even most cops are bad. My sister is a cop.) Black people have historically experienced much discrimination, violence and repression in America (not to mention the history of slavery).Some have horrible experiences, memories and stories that are passed down along generations. One of the consequence of that is that there is a “common sense” fear on the part of many that they will be discriminated against. Sometimes it turns out to be an unfounded suspicion. But the research Kang reports on suggests that it is often not. The jury acquitted Simpson because the prosecutors tried a terrible case (and to be fair to them they were terribly outmatched on resources) and they used an witness (Furman) who had to assert the 5th on the stand. usually not good for your case. Just ask Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor of Charles Manson. He wrote a book about it. He thought the verdict was right not because he thought Simpson didn’t do it but because he thought the prosecution had failed to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. I don’t think you’d call Bugliosi “naive.” How do you “know” all those things that you think you do? All the unwed mothers I know are white girls like Bristol Palin. You might want to read a really good book by Robert Burton called “On Being Certain.” You might be surprised. But otherwise I’d say about your comment what we say in lawspeak – res ipsa loquitor.

  8. karp said

    “It is neither “racist” nor “biased” to make rational and reasonable presumptions based on the social realities in this country and the statistical facts.”

    It’s not necessarily biased, but you can make a case that it’s certainly racist, since in the example you describe, you’re judging an individual based on his racial category, which is literally the definition of racism.

    You can expand your logic only slightly and make your argument appear as ridiculous as it is. Statistically, men commit more violent crimes than women… should be I afraid all men I meet under any circumstances are going to stab me? Cat owners are more likely to commit suicide than dog owners… should I carefully monitor the mood of all my friends who have cats?
    Furthermore, it’s disingenuous of you to characterize a “parking lot moment” as a reasoned, careful analysis of statistical probability anyway. It’s a snap judgment based on emotions and heuristics, which can be true, can be biased, and can be both simultaneously. I’ll never understand what’s so threatening to certain people’s self-esteem about that.

    And as far as that bias you mentioned… when you so dramatically and histrionically overstate the danger of being approached in a parking lot by a black man… acting as if the end of your life is a likely or plausible result of that situation!… it’s quite surprising and striking. It makes me wonder if racial bias is behind that mental leap.

  9. JThom said

    The problem with “Tamara” is that she dismisses black bias against whites as understandable (even if it is irrational)but racial bias is racial bias. Plus, most claims of racial discrimination by blacks I think are fabricated and bogus, and the playing of the race card has become an everyday occurrence, a more high-profile one being Professor Gates in Cambridge. People like Professor Kang only enable and encourage that. Plus, why is Kang’s focus (and the research he cites) only concerning itself with alleged bias by whites against blacks?? Isn’t Kang interest in racial bias period? Another plus is the statistics none of you care to acknowledge – the statistics showing a much higher rate of criminality among the black population than the white population. And the reference to Bristol Palin as an example of white unwed birthing is just plain nuts. It doesn’t matter who YOU know, what matters is the the statistics – and they show a ghastly rate of teenage unwed births in the black community – a match for the high rate of criminality and incarceration among young black men. So, is it rational to make certain preliminary presumptions based on demographics – meaning, is it rational to consider probabilities. Of course it is. And it is entirely rational for someone to take defensive precautions (in the parking lot hypothetical) if a young black male is approaching you. You want to call that “bias”? Okay, but I see nothing wrong with that – you’d be stupid not to take precautions.

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