Q&A with the Authors of Blindspot

What do you mean by blindspots, hidden biases, and “mindbugs”

All human eyes have a blind spot—a small region of the retina that is devoid of light receptors and that keeps us from seeing objects whose image falls into that region. We use this as a metaphor for psychological and social blindspots in the form of hidden biases that can guide our behavior without our awareness of their role.

We identify mindbugs as “ingrained habits of thought that lead to errors in how we perceive, remember, reason, and make decisions.” Our book focuses on mindbugs in the form of automatic mental reactions to members of particular race, gender, ethnic, and other groups. These automatic reactions, called hidden biases, can occur outside of awareness, and they can produce judgments that cause unintended disadvantages for others. In other words, hidden biases can influence our behavior toward members of social groups, but we remain oblivious to their influence.

In talking with others about hidden biases, we have discovered that many find it unbelievable that their behavior can be guided by mental content of which they are unaware (e.g., that they may not select a doctor who has the right medical expertise because they are unconsciously deterred by the doctor’s race, nationality, gender, or age).

How old are we when we develop these blindspots? Why does this process happen?

We enter the world with a brain uniquely prepared to learn. The world outside dictates what gets learned. We can observe the interaction of the brain and the world outside soon after birth. For example, within the first few months after birth, infants show reliable preferences for women over men (if a woman is the primary caregiver) and for same-race others over other-race others. A few months later, infants show preferences for others who speak in a familiar language rather than a foreign one, reaching for a toy offered by the former rather than the latter.

An intriguing result has emerged in comparing the biases of children and adults. When asked explicit questions such as “whom do you like” and “whom would you have as a friend,” White children aged 6 significantly chose other White children over Black children; by age 10, responses to the same questions produced more muted reports of ingroup preference, although ingroup preference was marked; adults, knowing better, reported that they would select Black and White equally. These differences in responses by age tell us that, in the samples we studied (comprised of urban Americans), there is a conscious sensitivity to having egalitarian preferences; and that as our thinking becomes more complex with age, we learn to express preferences for others more evenly. The hidden biases we report on in this book show a hidden level of mental action that operates differently from what we experience on a conscious level.

What is the IAT? How does it work and what does it test for?

The principle on which the IAT operates is simple. It is easy to act the same toward two different things when those two things have something in common. For example, it is easy to act similarly toward two people if they’re both the same age or if they both have the same job.

One way to demonstrate the logic underlying the IAT is this: Imagine having to sort red and black playing cards into two piles, one black, one red. This should be easy to do. Now imagine sorting spades and diamonds into one pile and clubs and hearts into another. This should be harder to do because the common feature of color that made the first sorting so easy is no longer available to make the task automatic. Instead, greater conscious attention and thought are necessary.

To understand the hidden biases of this book, now imagine having to associate White American with good and Black American with bad. Because these associations have come to be the cultural default, our minds can handle this job easily. But having to associate the converse, Black American with good and White American with bad, is harder for most White Americans and even many Black Americans because those associations are not the ones we have learned. The difference in time and errors between the easier and harder tasks provides a measure of the individual’s level of bias in a particular time and place.

How do people generally react to the results of their IAT?

More than 14 million IATs have been taken online, and they are now being taken at a rate of more than one million per year. Reactions have varied widely since we debuted the test . IAT test-takers are often surprised by unexpected results. Some gain a new sense of self-awareness as they discover associations that were previously hidden. Some admire the simplicity of the IAT’s method at unearthing something inside their minds of which they had no prior knowledge. And some are incredulous—they don’t believe the test could possibly be producing valid results.  A minority of first-time takers of the IAT express hostility toward the test, which appears to be “accusing” them of harboring an objectionable bias—a reaction we understand and with which we sympathize.

Cumulatively, what does the IAT reveal about the extent of and possible consequences of hidden bias in the U.S.?

The IAT reveals that many people possess associations of which they are unaware and with which they disagree. These associations correspond to attitudes and stereotypes that many regard as objectionable, including preferences for Whites (relative to Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, or Native Americans) and stereotypes associating men more than women with careers, science, and leadership. These particular associations have been identified in 70–80% of those who have taken IATs at the Project Implicit web site.

Is hidden bias the same thing as prejudice? 

We get this question frequently, especially concerning the Race IAT. We go to great efforts to explain that hidden bias is not the same thing as prejudice. The traditional measures of prejudice often call for open expressions of hostility, dislike, and disrespect. They are to a large extent under a person’s own conscious control. On the other hand, the hidden biases measured by the IAT are less consciously known to the person who harbors them—a significant difference. Nevertheless, research has repeatedly shown that this form of hidden bias is predictive of everyday social behaviors such as how we treat others, and the degree to which we are likely to discriminate.

What can we do about our blindspots? Is it possible to eliminate or work around them?

We titled the last chapter of the book “Outsmarting the Machine” rather than “Eliminating Biases.” Hidden biases can be hard to eliminate because they are continually reinforced by “normal” daily experience. To “outsmart the machine” is to recognize that one’s behavior need not line up with unintentionally acquired hidden biases; instead, it can be guided by conscious goals. The power of conscious and deliberate thought can initiate strategies capable of “outsmarting” the mindbugs that produce hidden biases.

Because many biases are not ones of which we are even aware, the act of becoming aware of them is a key first step. The four IATs presented in the book can help readers start this process.

What new projects/studies are you working on now and into the future?

One area is women’s roles in the workplace, where subtle discrimination occurs more often in the form of favoritism than outright hostility, where gender stereotypes still affect women’s career paths, and where implicit attitudes might have something to do with “why women still can’t have it all”). Other areas include:

  • The formation of implicit attitudes and stereotypes in children
  • The involvement of race attitudes in medicine, business, and politics (e.g., voting)
  • The importance of ingroup favoritism in workplace discrimination
  • The role of power and status in exacerbating and reducing biases
  • The malleability of hidden biases