February 2013


By Jane Kamensky
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Most of us would like to believe that we’re free-thinking, fair-minded folks who treat everyone equally. In this age of political correctness and diversity, that’s built into the code of everyday life. There’s proof. Americans elected an African-American president—twice.

Yet, according to Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald, authors of Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, such gestures don’t atone for the various “mindbugs” we possess: “ingrained habits” that dictate how we perceive and react to, well, everything around us.

That I can summarize the book so easily is a credit to the authors, longtime psychology professors at Harvard University (Banaji) and the University of Washington (Greenwald), who complement their data with straightforward explanations and examples, whether it’s real-life stories or famous “Seinfeld” episodes. The result is a riveting book steeped in research that feels personal, sometimes uncomfortably so.

Blindspot’s first moment of clarity comes when you take the authors’ much-discussed Implicit Association Tests (IATs), especially the one on race. You may find that you’re not as enlightened as you believe. (A 2009 meta-analysis of 184 studies showed that “the race IAT predicted racially discriminatory behavior.”) By allowing us to participate in the science—as I did—and not just digest data, Banaji and Greenwald capture our attention.

And what we learn is fascinating. Examples: Stereotypes may help us navigate the world, but they can force the affected to live up (or down) to that description—which can be good and bad. Discrimination doesn’t have to involve overt acts of hatred, but can be as simple as “maintaining the status quo.” (The authors describe a doctor at a university hospital whose effort increased when he learned that his youthful-looking patient was a professor.) Automatic preferences steer us away from uncomfortable situations, which is why undertakers may have a hard time finding dates.

In this accessible and sobering book, Banaji and Greenwald dig into our soul’s deepest crevices. And that’s great. Because it turns out that before we can all get along with each other, we need to work on ourselves.

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By Jane Kamensky
Spiegel & Grau
ISBN 9780385526197

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