Harvard’s Mahzarin Banaji Helps Uncover Implicit Bias

Photo courtesy of Onbeing.com

Photo courtesy of Onbeing.com

Hira Humayun ’17
Editor-in-chief

Sweeney Concert Hall was full of Smith faculty, staff and students alike on Oct. 28 when Harvard psychologist Professor Mahzarin Banaji conducted a workshop on discovering implicit biases from 2 to 5p.m. In early Sept. President Kathleen McCartney wrote in an email to the Smith community, “Our most consequential commitment as a community is to continue our sustained work to build a just and inclusive campus,” with this event being part of Smith’s process of community education to promote inclusivity and understanding throughout the campus.

Professor Banaji is Head Tutor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard, among holding many other board positions in scientific organizations. Her research focuses on human thought and feeling in social contexts, and more specifically on the way the mind works in terms of implicit or unconscious thoughts and feelings. She is the co-author of “Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People.”

Banaji’s workshop covered many different aspects of implicit bias and addressed the disconnect between our conscious thoughts and actions, and our implicit biases which prompt behavior which does not coincide with our rational beliefs. She proceeded, via a series of slides and videos, to show the audience their implicit biases and the costs they carry with them.

She revealed personal anecdotes and instances where her own implicit bias could have prevented her from benefitting, had she given into it or been unaware of it. “For everything I get right, I worry about the certain number of things I’m missing,” she said. Banaji explained that implicit bias and preconceived notions we hold, especially those we are not consciously aware of, can lead us to miss out on experiences and important contributions from people we may otherwise dismiss due to those biases.

Talking about her own preconceived notions regarding the standard for being smart or competent, which arose from the material she grew up reading and how her brain had been conditioned, she said, “it’s an imprint I carry around today and it’s a very hard imprint to change.”

She proceeded to show videos to the audience to demonstrate our inattentional blindness, in which one does not recognize something in plain sight because it does not rise to the level of conscious awareness. We are consciously focusing on something else. The video involved men in black and white T-shirts passing balls to one another, and the audience was asked to count the number of passes. In the midst of the video was a silhouette of a woman carrying an umbrella walking across the screen, which the majority of the audience failed to see. Banaji explained that this was because we did not expect to see the silhouetted woman walk across the screen. Our minds tend to ignore data in favor of expectation when data and expectation are at odds.

Banaji used this example to explain that in the larger context, this is how implicit bias established by expectations can render us unaware of other things that may factually be present. At the same time, there are some people who tended to notice things such as the silhouetted woman, and that by putting these different types of people together, we can create a better environment.

She emphasized the danger of missing the things that are there and even seeing things that aren’t there, due to “a strong assumption of how the world is structured even when it isn’t that way.” However, Banaji also stressed that there can be solutions, but they “can’t happen unless you are aware and believe that we are one of the culprits,” she said, explaining that we will be quicker at questioning ourselves once we see how dominant expectations are.

Using a slide showing a picture of the human brain, Banaji highlighted the region of the brain that carries distinctions of people who are similar to us and also the region that carries our notions of those we perceive as different from us. She explained that studies have shown humans are more likely to help those who are more similar to them. These “self-neurons” distinguish the self from the other, resulting in “invisible moral boundaries drawn around ourselves” and rendering the individual inconsistent and irrational, with notions of right and wrong often changing according to the circumstances.

After explaining this neurological aspect of bias, Banaji emphasized that this is all the more reason to have a clear, objective vantage point. “We need to seek out third party views and take them seriously,” she said, stressing that in a country like the United States, which is an amalgamation of people from immigrant backgrounds to some degree, we need to be highly conscious of this bias and tendency to lean towards those similar to ourselves. “We discriminate in terms of who we want to help,” she said.

“This isn’t just an issue south of the Mason-Dixon line,” she said. “This has been seen here in New England,” she explained as she emphasized why this is something important to consider even here at Smith. She concluded by saying, “we all believe that our behavior ought to be aligned with our own principles,” and that once we are aware we will want to change as people and as institutions.

“The reason I give these talks is because I don’t believe that the solutions of these [problems] can come from scientists, but from the people like us who talk about these issues,” Banaji said. “I would not be in awareness and management if change wasn’t in it.”

“I appreciated how Professor Banaji demonstrated to everyone in attendance that society has left its “thumbprint” on our minds,” said Professor Floyd Cheung of the English Language & Literature and American studies departments. “That is, we are deeply affected by ideologies like racism, sexism, classism, and other structures, the workings of which we are often not aware.”

“What struck me was when she said that the way we discriminate is by who we help,” said Mahrukh Khan ’17. “It made me think of those people around the world who are different from me but are also suffering. At the end of the day, we are all human and we should all help each other instead of choosing only to help those whom we share similarities with.”

Dr. Banaji’s work has informed much of the work that I do,” said Vice President for Inclusion, Diversity and Equity, Dwight Hamilton.  “I’ve been incorporating implicit bias in my trainings for the last six years and have incorporated it here at Smith when I conduct workshops on recruitment and selection of faculty and staff. I focus on helping others not only understand and recognize implicit bias, but I also discuss how to avoid letting those biases adversely affect hiring decisions…I would like to see training on implicit bias to make its way into all areas where decisions about others are made.  I see implicit bias as being relevant for groups like the conduct board, campus police, even for students when making evaluations of professors.”

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