Yisu Zheng / Sun Staff Photographer

Banaji speaks on hidden biases

February 12, 2019

Harvard Professor Advises People to Be Aware of Their Biases

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“Be deeply skeptical of your own minds,” Harvard Prof. Mahzarin Banaji said to a packed Statler auditorium Monday evening, referencing the implicit biases that lurk beneath everyday interactions.

As chair of the psychology department at Harvard University, Banaji researches bias and co-founded the online association test Project Implicit in 1998 to educate the public about the effect of unspoken biases, which has received 30 million responses since its inception.

Implicit bias is the subconscious process with which individuals make decisions about others based on racial, socioeconomic, gender or ability identifiers.

During her talk to students, faculty and the general public, Banaji explained how the human brain forms implicit biases that impact decision-making on race, gender, employment decisions and more.

Banaji identified a plethora of implicit perceptions humans make during the lecture and how those perceptions can influence crucial decision-making processes.

“The way you and I discriminate is by how and who we help,” Banaji said.

Referencing her Princeton colleague Prof. Alexander Todorov’s, psychology, work on human faces, Banaji described how quickly humans can judge each other. “In 500 milliseconds, you more or less have decided [one’s competence],” she said.

To further her point, Banaji referenced a study about implicit racial bias that showed a black man in New York City looking for employment was at a severe disadvantage; the likelihood that a black man would get hired was identical to that of a white man of the same age, the same education level — but with a criminal record.

She said that studies assessing the STEM field have shown employers’ implicit bias in preferring men. The studies, which analyzed applications for a lab manager position, revealed employer practices of “selecting men over women, offering $4,000 more in salary, and offering to mentor them more.”

That bias is perpetuated by both men and women, Banaji said.

“Gender stereotypes seem to be equally held by men and women, favoring men in domains where competence is a main issue,” Banaji said.

She also described interviews, a core component of many job applications, as “a terrible way to make a decision.”

Aside from useful details, she said that interviews provide “a lot of irrelevant information and even harmful information,” and that humans automatically discriminate between others based on that information.

These biases can lead to “costly” mistakes, according to Banaji, who said that “we come awfully close to missing talent based on the shape and form in which it arrives.”

However, despite the numerous findings of implicit bias, Banaji remains optimistic.

“Change is possible,” she said. Based on over 4.5 million responses from the Implicit Association Test, analysis has shown that people’s implicit biases vary year to year, for better and for worse.

“Today we associate overweight people with bad more than we did ten years ago,” she said.

However, Banaji noted that other biases are trending differently. “Americans are changing even their implicit anti-gay bias towards neutrality,” she said, adding that racial biases are also becoming less significant.

“The question for us is a very straightforward one: What do we wish to do?” she asked.

Banaji emphasized the unique human ability of conscious awareness. “It’s this ability to gather together as collectives and to do something that will shift the course of our history,” she said.

“I’m not here to tell you to wipe all biases you have; I’m saying choose them,” she said.