Skip to main content
Skip to navigation

April 24, 2014 Volume 35, No. 28

Guest lecturer reveals people’s hidden biases

Alternate text

Mahzarin R. Banaji, a professor of social ethics at Harvard University, said progress is being made in treating one another fairly, but more work needs to be done. Photo courtesy of Harvard University.

Distinguished Lecture Series in Psychological Sciences

Most in the MU community probably think they are progressive in their views on race, gender equality, women’s rights, gay rights and other social issues. 

Deans and directors probably think they make decisions on personnel — who to hire, fire, promote — based on cold hard facts involving job performance. Personal biases are not considered.

But that’s not true. In fact, purity in those decisions is not true at companies and other institutions anywhere in the world.

Those were among the dramatic assertions made April 17 by Harvard University Professor Mahzarin R. Banaji, speaking at the semester’s final installment of the Distinguished Lecture Series in Psychological Sciences. Her lecture was called “Blindspot: The Hidden Biases of Good People.”

Cultural influences and primal predispositions from our evolutionary past have sullied our hearts. We don’t like people who don’t look like us (racism). We favor what our culture favors (thus all kinds of irrational biases). Both men — and women — favor white men for an executive job over a woman who is equally or more qualified. 

“Science has told us we might not be the good people we think we are,” Banaji said.

The first reaction to Banaji’s assertions is defensiveness. This might be true, but lecture attendees excluded. Or my office is excluded. Or I am the exception. Banaji, a professor of social ethics, punctured those balloons by giving the Jesse Wrench Auditorium audience the Implicit Association Test.

The audience failed it.

In 1998, Banaji, Tony Greenwald of the University of Washington and Brian Nosek of the University of Virginia founded the Implicit Project, from which was born the Implicit Association Test (IAT). 

IAT reveals the unconscious attitudes and beliefs people have. Someone might truly believe, for example, that they aren’t racist toward African-Americans, or that they consider women as qualified as men to be scientists. But in many cases the test reveals otherwise.

IAT measures the associations among concepts (blacks, gays, women), moral evaluations (good or bad) and cultural stereotypes. Test takers respond quickly, before conscious thought, as images and words flash on a screen. Their responses and response time are logged.

And yet progress toward equality has been made. Banaji pointed out that as late as the 1940s, Yale University had a policy against admitting Jews. A reason given in Yale internal rejection forms was, “He has a Mediterranean nose.” Today such a policy would be unthinkable. This month, Brandan Eich resigned as CEO of Silicon Valley-based Mozilla, creator of the browser Firefox, when it was revealed he financially supported a 2008 California amendment banning gay marriage. Only a few years ago, resigning for not supporting gay marriage would be unheard of. And many women today are CEOs of companies and organizations.

But before the Jesse Wrench audience could feel good about progress in social attitudes and beliefs, Banaji said, “Many things we say today will sound [to future generations] like, ‘He had a Mediterranean nose.’ ”

Take the test at