When Jennifer Eberhardt appeared on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah in April 2019, she had a hard time keeping a straight face. But some of the laughs were painful. Discussing unconscious racial bias, which she has studied for years, the Stanford University psychologist mentioned the “other-race effect,” in which people have trouble recognizing faces of other racial groups. Criminals have learned to exploit the effect, she told Noah. In Oakland, California, a gang of black teenagers caused a mini–crime wave of purse snatchings among middle-aged women in Chinatown. When police asked the teens why they targeted that neighborhood, they said the Asian women, when faced with a lineup, “couldn’t tell the brothers apart.”
But it was true. Eberhardt has written that the phrase “they all look alike,” long the province of the bigot, “is actually a function of biology and exposure.” There’s no doubt plenty of overt bigotry exists, Eberhardt says; but she has found that most of us also harbor bias without knowing it. It stems from our brain’s tendency to categorize things—a useful function in a world of infinite stimuli, but one that can lead to discrimination, baseless assumptions, and worse, particularly in times of hurry or stress.
Over the decades, Eberhardt and her Stanford team have explored the roots and ramifications of unconscious bias, from the level of the neuron to that of society. In cleverly designed experiments, she has shown how social conditions can interact with the workings of our brain to determine our responses to other people, especially in the context of race. Eberhardt’s studies are “strong methodologically and also super real-world relevant,” says Dolly Chugh of New York University’s Stern School of Business, a psychologist who studies decision-making.
Eberhardt hasn’t shied away from some of the most painful questions in U.S. race relations, such as the role of bias in police shootings. “What’s distinctive about her work is how bold she is,” says Susan Fiske, a psychologist at Princeton University who wrote the authoritative textbook about social cognition. “She’s not the only one working in social cognition or on police issues or on implicit bias. But she dares to go where other people don’t.”
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