Mahzarin Banaji: Zooming in on blind spots

On a recent Thursday evening at Deutsche Bank AG’s fourth annual Women in Asian Business Conference, over 800 corporate executives, largely bankers, discovered that they barely knew their own minds.

Article by Joji Thomas Philip | Live Mint

Mahzarin Banaji1

Participating in a series of tests put forward by the speaker—Mahzarin Banaji, the Richard Clarke Cabot professor of social ethics at Harvard University—the audience watched the results with disbelief. An overwhelming majority of the corporate crowd who believed they held no explicit prejudices along race, class or gender lines, found they carried the biases sub-consciously.

Banaji, a psychologist and scientist who studies the science of prejudice, was trying to drive home the point to bankers and corporate executives that unintentional preferences and favouritism, which she calls “blind spots” of individuals, eventually has an impact on the way their companies function.

During the last decade, millions have taken the Implicit Association Test (IAT) which measures people’s hidden associations, and was jointly developed by Banaji, Anthony G. Greenwald of the University of Washington and Brian Nosek of the University of Virginia. The test is available for free on a Harvard University-related website.

In an interview after the Deutsche Bank event, Hyderabad-born Banaji said she was stunned to see the results when she first took IAT.

“I personally knew I was a product of my culture and biased myself, but taking the IAT for the first time was a mind stopper. The test I took had faces of dark- and light-skinned people, and I had to associate them with good and bad words—like love or peace which are good, and words like devil or bomb which are bad things,” she said.

“I found that it was very easy for me to associate light-skinned faces with good and dark-skinned faces with bad, but it was not at all easy to do it the other way around. I was stunned—sufficiently stunned that my first thought was that something was procedurally wrong with the test. Because I felt that I knew my own mind, and I know that I have biases, but not being able to associate dark-skinned with good—that was not who I am. I went to Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU, in Delhi)! I was raised to be a progressive,” she said.

Banaji, who is 58, spent the first half of her life in India—22 in Hyderabad, where she finished her B.A from Nizam College and her M.A in psychology from Osmania University in Hyderabad—and two years in Delhi, studying social systems in JNU.

While in Delhi, she bought a five-volume set of books—Handbook of Social Psychology from the railway station, and it marked the turning point in her life and career, as it led her to pack her bags and move to the US with just $85 in her pocket. She had secured a scholarship from the American Association of University Women.

In 1986, Banaji received her Ph.D from Ohio State University and then taught at Yale University for the next 15 years before moving to Harvard.

Banaji said that over the years, IAT-related tests had taught her that she had deep-seated preferences towards groups of people she had no conscious awareness of.

“But there are also some opposite surprises. Biases that many people show on some tests, I don’t. I don’t show anti-gay bias for example. And I have to believe that this may have something to do with my upbringing. Being Parsi in India, you knew of people in your community who are gay without that term being used—at least in the ’50s and ’60s. We might know of an uncle who lived with another man, and experience them as wonderful people. But many Americans, including gay Americans, show an anti-gay bias,” she added.

Banaji’s latest book, Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People, which she co-authored with Greenwald and was published in 2013, highlights that everyone harbours biases, even as it also explores ways to tackle these subconscious attitudes.

“What is interesting to me is the conflict in every mind: where we think we are unbiased, but the data on the test such as IAT shows we are biased. That disparity to me is striking—it means that if that’s the case, if everyone here, myself included, harbour these biases, then we are a part of the problem. Once you see it that way, and once you recognize that, the problem takes on a new form; it should not make you feel guilty, it should make you feel a heightened sense of responsibility to set it straight through action,” she said.

Today, IATs are applied to professions as diverse as law and medicine, and Banaji said organizations could use such tools to outsmart bias and achieve better outcome on how they hire people and how they promote employees as against the traditional way of doing these functions.

Banaji said she was disappointed that psychology as a field had not developed in India yet. Still, it is the mark of an advancing culture that the current generation is looking at these fields, and pointed out that this presented an interesting commentary on the social aspects of careers.

“What a career is really depends on how many generations in a family has had education, have accumulated wealth. My husband is South Indian and a Tamilian—among Tamil Brahmin families of his generation, even computer science wasn’t considered good enough! I joke that it was considered the profession you went to, if you couldn’t hack it in math or physics. My husband, R. Bhaskar, certainly started life out as an engineer and computer scientist. But in his mid-40s, he went to law school. He could not have done that in his 20s,” she added.

Banaji said they did not have children by choice.

“I’ve never missed having children. I feel I have 400 of them I interact with on campus and that seems quite fulfilling,” she said.

Banaji has also studied the impact that biases have with regard to race and their influence on the US presidential elections. But can the same be applicable to countries like India where the diversity is so huge?

“In India, it is not just black and white. It is both a blessing and a curse. There are a million different kinds. It is a curse because at every turn you can see someone who is a little different from you and that can become the basis for discrimination. It is a blessing because as the world progresses, the differences are all going to collapse—if it is just black and white, it can last for a long time, but when there are many different types of groups, at some point, you realize that your group is not better than mine and all of these differences makes no sense,” she said.

“If you live in a country like India, you come to see more quickly that your God is not the only good God. Even though there is all this religious conflicts in India, I still believe that in the average Indian, there is a lot of tolerance,” she added.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

Do media and cinema create biases in people because of how they portray events, cultures?

Absolutely. The media is probably the single most responsible source for what we perceive as good and evil in our current world. Let me give you the example of what has happened in the US on gay rights in the last 10 years—I would have never predicted that in my lifetime we would see the changes on gay rights. Nineteen US states have legalized gay marriage and others will follow suit, there is no question, one way or another. Why is this the case? First of all, you can come out to your parents as gay, but that’s after they’ve loved you and invested in you for years. Race and caste doesn’t work like that; you don’t suddenly see that your white child is black or that your Brahmin child is a Harijan. But I would argue that the main reason at least in the US that we have seen such rapid change on gay rights is because of Hollywood. Hollywood decided to take on this issue—they made shows and movies of interesting, smart and cool gay people and brought these to our living rooms every day. We saw examples of gay people on TV who were nicer and better than straight people. I think this changed minds without awareness and rapidly.

People in the media should know this. They are, at present, because of their deep enmeshing in our lives, a critical source of social change. The media has a far higher likelihood of influencing people than parents or teachers. Every one of us learns from the media in new ways that we never did before and, therefore, it is hugely important as a path to change.

What about biases based on religion. The way ISIS has been acting, their terror activities in Syria and Iraq—the beheadings which are being broadcast around the world—is not an entire generation growing up with biases against a certain group of people or religion due to this?

Yes. In India, religious bias is very explicit. The re-writing of Indian history from a Hindu perspective is just one small, scary example. I grew up in Hyderabad which had constant Hindu-Muslim conflict. The biggest war in the world right now is a war of cultures that stems from differences in religion. Religion remains a major driving force of much of the harm in the world. Yet, in modern business, religion has no place. People are not supposed to care about which religion you belong to. Instead, what for-profits and non-profits are supposed to look for are the strength of one’s ideas, the abilities of a person, what values you share with the mission of the organization. Perhaps, I’m overly optimistic, but think the world is seeing the last big gasp of religious fervour. The Islamic world is going through what Christianity went through 500 years ago, 1,000 years ago. They have to sort it out. Think about it: today, don’t we think about Greek gods as purely mythology? But there were people once who believed, truly believed, in somebody called Zeus. There is no doubt that we will think about present-day religions with bemusement someday. Our descendants will smile and say people used to fight about their gods versus other gods. The only question is just how long and how many lives before we reach this state of being free of all religions.

About ISIS and other jihadi groups, there are millions of Muslims in the world who do not believe in Islam as fundamentalist Muslims do. And yet, this is an interesting story about our own minds; that a relatively small group can shape our view of the entire group. You will often see that in perceptions of minorities. When members of smaller groups do terrible things, we are apt to generalize to the group as a whole.

Can technology increase one’s biases—today, because of the choices available, we read what we want, see only what we want. We don’t get to see the other side. I am not a captive audience any more—I can switch to another news article on my phone the minute the headline is not appealing to me.

There are two sides to it. I think that our time is so constrained that we may not be using our power of controlling what we actually consume. I am very excited because right now, I don’t have just Deccan Chronicle and The Times of India—the two newspapers that would be delivered to our house when I was growing up in Hyderabad. We did not have TV. I think we ran the danger of becoming even more narrow-minded than we used to be. However, I do want to say this—the scope for us to know better and know more has vastly increased. If Deccan Chronicle or the Times did not cover a story, I did not know of it. Now I can search for that story elsewhere. Today I look at the headlines from the Washington Post, NYT, WSJ and if I like a story, I will follow it. But I don’t limit myself to any one media.

Technology is also a huge problem for us because we are now self-selecting. Our old beliefs that we should shun people of a certain nationality or religion or race is slowly going way—what is taking its place is people who think differently from us. That is a legitimate source for discrimination. Many Indians who fought against colonial rule show a white bias. Why should I show positive association with white skin colour rather than dark skin? Members of a group that are oppressed come to hold bias against their groups in their own hearts and minds. This is why we see African Americans not showing black preference as much as white Americans showing white preference. This is why women are biased against women in the work place. This is why many gay people have anti-gay attitudes.

There is a lot of debate in the US on the lack of diversity, especially the lack of women in the technology industry. If you look at the start-up scene, the number of women are again very low. Do biases play a role?

Yes, these start-up events have 90% men.

Grace Murray Hopper (an American scientist and US Navy real admiral who was one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer and also invented the first compiler for a computer programming language) was a black American and an incredible person. There was an early generation of computer science professionals like her who were all women. Why did that happen? Women used to be secretaries and they could type, and computer science was seen as requiring typing. Many of the first coders were women. But, very soon, it became a culture of geeks that become exclusionary. Right now, there are two things that contribute to it. There is a tremendous amount of bias that says women are not good at coding, computing, thinking about problem-solving in a logical way, and so on. There are also women who are not opting that field because it is not an attractive field for them to be. People in my generation did not understand about gender bias and we went to graduate schools in masculine fields, and we did not have any understanding of sexism and we got our degrees and our jobs. My great worry is the new generation of women have options—they don’t have to be in computer science because they could be in something else. They could be in many many fields where women are welcome. They are not self-selecting because the field does signal openness and welcomeness.

Do you know that there is a study that when people stand up and make a five-minute pitch for their start-ups, if a woman and a man were to make the same pitch, people will say the man’s pitch is good and we should invest in him. I think the tech and start-up world is really primitive in this area, and I think it is partly that way because we associate the tech world with young people. Young people believe they are bias free and that they are not like their fathers or grandfathers and held rigid beliefs—they believe that if women want, they can do anything. I have the same problem with liberals in the US who think it is the others who have biases and not them. Young men in the tech world believe that we are cool and can’t be biased and that is a fundamental error.

You have also worked on the concept of Theory of Mind. I’ve read that you believe this concept can be used to solve conflicts such as the Arab-Israeli one. Can science ever have solutions to such issues?

I think behavioural sciences can have solutions to every major problem in the world. We’ve been at the business of rocket science for 2000 years. I say one sentence to my students—I tell them that what we do is not rocket science—it is a whole lot harder. I say that because rocket science is always used as an example of what is hard. I want to convey that it may be well that these problems are harder than they appear in the physical world—in the physical world, there may be greater simplicity to these than the mental world. But I also believe that we’ve been at it for about a 100 years at most—so we are in an infant stage of psychology. Of course, we will solve these problems—I have no doubt that we will. Already in the last 30 years that I’ve been in this field, it is already an unrecognized field from what I was when I came in—it is unrecognizable in the kind of things we are doing now. So I am very hopeful we will solve problems on the big scale using the science.

With other disciplines of science, be it medicine, space or any fields, a scientist is generally seen as doing something for the larger good. How tough is it to be a scientist in your field, because most people don’t know they have biases, or may not recognize this as a science that makes a difference to their lives?

In my 35 years in this field, I’ve seen an enormous shift. When I began graduate studies in 1980, I used to dread getting on an airplane, and when I would say I am a scientist and a psychologist, they would then ask if I were either psychologist or a scientist. They would then ask me if I could read their minds, or help with their girlfriend. I don’t get those questions anymore…or only rarely. Now when I say, I am psychologist and a scientist, people ask me what I study or what research I do. It is changing. I would not say that psychology and physics are equal examples of the domain of science in most minds, but I think a major shift has taken place. People understand that it is not what you are studying that makes you a scientist, it is the methods you use that make you a scientist. The methods of experimental psychology are really the methods of the oldest sciences. It is experimentation, it is modelling, it is deep observation and analysis. And, albeit a biased view, there is nothing more exciting than understanding our own minds, and we stand at the frontier of very exciting times in the minds sciences.