60 pages 2 hours read

Mahzarin Banaji, Anthony Greenwald

Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2013

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People is a nonfiction social psychology book written by psychologists Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald. Both authors have received several prestigious awards and served as editors for scholarly journals in psychology. They have also published dozens of other academic works in their field. Published in 2013, Blindspot received a number of positive reviews and was a New York Times best seller. It is one of many books that to emerge around that time offering a critical analysis of stereotypes, prejudice, and racism.

Summary

Blindspot begins by explaining that we possess mental blindspots that are much like our visual blind spots—they exist but without our conscious awareness of them. These blindspots house our hidden biases, or “mindbugs” (1), which are often in direct conflict with our conscious beliefs and ideologies. The concept of hidden biases rests on prevailing ideas in psychology that the unconscious mind is responsible for much of our actions and behavior. While we may consciously espouse egalitarian views, we may also possess unconscious biases—which undermine those views by contributing to discrimination. Psychologists separate the mind into two sides: the automatic, or unconscious side, and the reflective, or conscious side. Hidden biases are a product of the automatic side and may interfere with the actions and behaviors of the reflective side.

In the early chapters of the book, the authors provide samples of various versions of the Implicit Association Test (IAT). The IAT, devised by author Anthony G. Greenwald in the 1990s, measures implicit biases using mental associations. The majority of people who have taken the Race IAT—which Greenwald developed shortly after the initial IAT, and which is included in the book—score an automatic white preference. As many of these people also explicitly believe in equality, the Race IAT reveals they have a hidden bias regarding race. The authors’ arguments that implicit racial biases exist is primarily based on the results of the Race IAT, which has been taken by millions of people. The test was devised to get around a well-known problem in psychology known as “impression management” (27), in which a research participant skews their answer toward what they think the researcher may want to hear or to make themselves look more favorable.

The authors discuss a number of scholarly research studies that have built on the findings of the Race IAT. These studies, which came in the wake of the IAT, collectively demonstrate that a white preference on the Race IAT is a moderate predictor of discriminatory behavior. The discrimination is most often in the form of assisting a white person over a member of another race, whether it is in the context of everyday interactions, job hiring, or procuring property. It does not include acts that may be hostile, aggressive, or violent. The discrimination measured in these studies is therefore more subtle, or covert.

The book’s subsequent discussion of stereotypes and their consequences further builds on the idea of hidden biases. The authors explain that stereotypes are an unfortunate extension of the mind’s essential capacity to categorize its environment. Stereotypes funnel individuals into categories based on social groups whose qualities are perceived to be similar—and are most often negative. However, many people are not aware they carry stereotypes, placing them firmly in the realm of hidden biases. In the chapters on stereotypes, the authors make an argument central to their book—that implicit stereotypes are potentially a greater contributor to discrimination than overt prejudice. They introduce the concepts of “in-groups” (141) and “out-groups” (129), arguing that in-group privilege is a powerful force of exclusion. The potential damage it inflicts—as resources are hoarded and protected by the in-group—may be even greater given that it’s often done unknowingly.

The final chapter of the book explores whether there is a way to overcome hidden biases. Based on a number of studies, the authors find hidden biases to be a stubborn problem. Research has shown that implicit biases can be temporarily eradicated through exposure to positive images of groups that are often stereotyped, but the effects generally do not last more than six weeks. Other methods have been effective, particularly blind auditions for symphony orchestra applicants but are hard to replicate in everyday social interactions. The authors hold out hope that future research will yield new methods for permanently eliminating our mindbugs.

In two appendices following the final chapter, the authors examine racial discrimination. They chose to focus exclusively on discrimination against Black Americans because it is the most heavily studied. In Appendix 1, they look at a century of research on discrimination to determine whether racism still exists in America. They conclude that a form of racism still exists, but it looks very different than it has in the past. In line with their arguments on hidden biases, they determine that racism is present but in a more covert form. In Appendix 2, the authors draw a connection between Black disadvantage and discrimination. Based on the work of other scholars, they concretely conclude that disadvantage is evident in several facets of society, including healthcare, hiring, housing, and criminal justice, and it is partly the result of discrimination—rather than other factors. They emphasize that the discrimination is more likely the result of the net effect of implicit bias rather than any overt racial hostility. While the latter exists, the authors argue that it is displayed by an increasingly small number of people.

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