APS Observer Online
Volume 14, Number 6
July/August 2001

A Revolution in Social Psychology
By Jill D. Kester
APS/AAAS 2001 Media Fellow

In response to skeptics, Galileo showed people that they could look through a telescope during the day and read inscriptions on buildings several miles away. At night, he then turned the telescope heavenwards and showed people the moons of Jupiter. This simple demonstration helped persuade Galileo's colleagues of the validity of the discoveries revealed by his new tool, which ultimately led to the Copernican Revolution. In no small part due to Galileo's invention, we now all take for granted the fact that the earth revolves around the sun.

Bring the Family Address
Mind Bugs Are Social Creatures
Mahzarin Banaji, Yale University

A comparable revolution is now occurring in psychology, according to Mahzarin Banaji from Yale University, in her presentation entitled "Mind Bugs are Social Creatures," at last month's APS convention. Banaji, a past member of the APS Board of Directors, further suggests that an analogy can be drawn between the history of the telescope and the way in which psychologists devise the tools of their trade. "My sense is that we don't take our tools as seriously as other scientists do," Banaji laments.

The particular tool that Banaji believes to be at the center of the current revolution in psychology is the Implicit Association Test, or the IAT.

Banaji and her colleagues in social psychology have developed the IAT over the last decade as a tool for measuring prejudice and stereotyping. Traditionally, people's beliefs and attitudes towards issues such as ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation have been assessed through direct questioning. In contrast, the IAT uses indirect measures to get at beliefs operating outside of people's conscious awareness or control.

For example, a typical IAT task measures the relative ease with which people are able to make associations between certain groups of people, such as older adults, and the concepts of "good" and "bad." Ease of association, measured by judgement speed, is taken as evidence for an implicitly-held attitude toward that social group. For example, the finding that people are quicker to associate "good" with "young" compared to "old" is interpreted as evidence of a generally-held bias in favor of youth.

Surprisingly, experiments using the IAT often reveal a dissociation between people's consciously expressed beliefs and implicitly revealed attitudes. Banaji presented data demonstrating that while people generally express positive attitudes towards African-Americans, Jews and foreigners on explicit measure, these same people will show marked preferences for Anglo-Americans, Christians and non-foreigners (Americans) on implicit measures.

As Banaji points out, findings such as these fly in the face of deeply held beliefs about how our minds work, "the idea that our beliefs and our attitudes are within our conscious control, that we have a particular belief and we can shed it."

"I'm not going to claim that these explicitly expressed preferences are untruths,"said Banaji. "I think that these actually may pick up a person's conscious attitude, and we know that's the case because they do predict certain kinds of behaviors." At the same time however, it is clear that people have social knowledge and beliefs that "operate outside of conscious control, sometimes in opposition to the intention that we make or consciously bring to bear."

Banaji compares the influence of implicitly-held beliefs to perceptual illusions. She sees both as "systematic errors or biases . . . in a system that normally works just fine" or "mind bugs." A demonstration commonly used in introductory psychology classes involves a drawing of two tables that appear to be quite different in size and shape, but when measured with a ruler prove to be identical. Perceptual cues that normally provide accurate information have been manipulated to create an illusion.

Similarly, Banaji explains, "two people can perform the same action, but beliefs that we have or knowledge that we have about their social groups . . . plays a role in shaping our assessments of them. The assessments that we make of them will feel veridical in very much the same way that these two tables actually don't appear to be the same length, when in fact they are." Just as many people find it difficult to believe that the tables in the classroom demonstration are indeed the same size, people often find it difficult to swallow the notion that they may hold prejudiced beliefs that they are not consciously aware of.

Banaji relates that while students in her introductory psychology class "nod vigorously when I talk about the power of the social situation," they look at her with "great disbelief" when she suggests that under the right circumstances, they may behave in a manner that could be labeled as prejudiced. Words such as "prejudice" and "stereotyping" have "a moral tincture [and] as a result they seem to reside in a sphere that is quite separate from the way in which we think about ordinary things," Banaji notes. However she suggests that "prejudice and stereotyping are not different from the ways in which we ordinarily think."

In a manner similar to Galileo, social psychologists have attempted to demonstrate the validity of their newfound tool, the IAT, and the surprising results it has revealed, by focusing on what is unsurprising: "We begin with biases that people might be aware of and might be willing to believe." One such study compared implicit attitudes towards Harvard and Yale held by students attending those schools. Not surprisingly, Yale students showed a massive preference for Yale over Harvard, and the opposite was true for Harvard students. Results such as these, Banaji suggests, make it " harder to get away from the fact that in our minds might reside other kinds of biases that are a little harder to accept, such as race bias."

The Copernican revolution, sparked by Galileo's invention of the telescope, is now complete, explains Banaji, "in the sense that it's not just in our text books; we believe it in our gut." In contrast, she claims the Darwinian revolution, the acceptance of the belief that humans evolved from other species, is not as complete: "it is in our textbooks, but I don't think we believe it in our gut." The third revolution of which she speaks, sparked by social psychologist's discoveries found through use of the IAT, "is going to be the hardest of all.

"[It] will challenge our beliefs about the very nature of our own minds . . . it is not merely about the place of our planet amongst other planets, it's not merely about our place in the larger set of other species, it's about the core issue of our competence, it's about our goodness, our ability to be moral, and to have control over our thoughts and feelings, about the most important object in our universe, other humans."

For more information about the IAT, visit http://buster.cs.yale.edu/implicit/

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