We're All Incredibly Biased And Then We Lie About It

Bias comes with being born. We are intuitively — later conditionally — biased in favor of some people more than others. In different cultures there are different divides. In West Europe it may be between natives and Turks, in the Middle East between natives and Westerners, in the US it’s usually between blacks & whites, rich & poor, young & old.

But come on now, how many of us admit to being biased? It’s a nasty little fact that catches like a bone in our throat. Who me…? And so we ever so nicely spin this fact into our own little fictions. “I take everyone on face-value.” “I say live and let live.” And yet we lie in our teeth.

A few years ago behavioral scientists Majzarin Banji and Anthony Greenwald came up with a test they said proved the lies. Scientifically. They called it the Implicit Association Test (IAT). It’s received a lot of applause along with a good deal of booing. Now the authors have written a book defending their work: ‘Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People.’

The way the test works is based on the classic word-association premise. Only in their test the associations are more subtle or implicit in order to keep the subjects from bending the truth. Words and images pop on a computer screen asking the subjects to respond in one of several ways. How they do and how long it takes them is designed into the process with quantifiable precision.

Their critics argue there are weaknesses built into the test. The authors here respond. And so another battle-of-science rages to the delight of those who say these knock-down-drag-out debates are what makes science so good, so right, so dependable. Unlike some institutions, science takes nothing on faith; but keeps debating and refining its principles until it gets them right.

And this is true.

However, as you review ‘Blindspot’ one thought comes to mind. When you take phenomenon like bias into the laboratory, doesn’t it become science separated from reality? The reality of , say, the bleachers in Wrigley Field on some early spring day when real people with real biases drinking real beer yell out their real biases. Next time you’re out there chances are you’ll find yourself getting right into the swing of it. Why? Because putting someone else down — by race, status, or age — makes us feel that much taller in comparison.

It’s the easy, do-nothing-to-earn-it way to suddenly feel more important. But do you ever notice who’s so good at this? Right, the least important-looking wing-nuts in the stands. Tested or not, they make the IAT look pretty important after all.

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