Category Archives: Philosophy

How Can We Fix Unconscious Racism?

Racial prejudice has its roots in children’s natural drive to carve the world up into categories. Can research do anything to fix this?

 

 

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It’s easy to categorise people based on skin colour, because it’s such a salient visual feature. But how can we tackle racial bias? Photograph: Alamy

On the whole, stereotypes are often right – dogs do normally bark and wag their tails. The difficulty arises when this learning mechanism is applied to groups of people. Race is an easy mental category to fit people into because skin colour is a salient visual feature.

Babies are not born believing that any group is better than another but they do attend to race surprisingly early. From about 9-months, babies show a general preference for what is familiar: they are quicker to recognise faces and facial expressions of their own race than of other races.

If we don’t have the opportunity to interact with individuals of a different race then the information we have to inform a racial category has to come from other sources such as the media or people’s opinions. As these can be biased in positive or negative ways, the stereotypes we form can also be biased and inaccurate. Depending how insistent and consistent these secondary sources are, they might even overwhelm our own personal experience.

This effect is compounded by some other low-level, unconscious biases. There is a strong tendency to favour our own group over other groups. It doesn’t really matter how the group is specified: children remember more positive things about members of their in-group and more negative things about members of the out-group, even if group membership is specified by something as superficial and transient as t-shirt colour.

 

We (as a species) also have a tendency to think of members of the out-group as being all much the same while members of our in-group are all unique snowflakes. This enables us to create coherent categories and make predictions but can also lead to vastly inaccurate and damaging sweeping generalizations.

Young children are particularly sensitive to the use of generics in language to learn about the world as quickly as possible. If you say ‘birds have wings’ they will generalise this information to all expectations of birds in a way that they won’t if you say ‘this bird has wings’. Of course, the same is then true if they hear phrases like ‘Arabs are violent.’

Insidious Racism

So, it is an embarrassing and oft repeated finding that while the majority of people in Western countries these days are egalitarian believers in a fair meritocracy, on tests of unconscious racial bias about 70% show a preference for their own race. The classic test is the Implicit Association Test, which measures how quickly you are able to categorize photos of members of your own race with positive characteristics (wonderful, glorious) and members of a minority race with negative characteristics (horrible, nasty).

This conflict between people’s dearly held explicit beliefs and their nasty little unconscious racial biases is troubling and has real-world consequences. For example, presented with identical, moderately good resumes attached to a picture of a white or black candidate, interviewers are significantly more likely to shortlist the white candidate for interview. This study was originally conducted in 1989 but the results were exactly the same when it was repeated in 2005.

The Roots of Racism

Explicit (conscious) racial biases start at about 5-years of age but, where they are not supported, tend to peter out from about 10-12 years. This is likely because children become more aware of principles of fairness and social justice that shape how they believe people should be treated. (If racial stereotypes are supported by the people around them then all bets are off. On the whole, garbage in, garbage out.)

Implicit (unconscious) racial biases, however, can develop as young as 3 years of age. Once established in the preschool years they are surprisingly resilient to change. While explicit racial prejudice drops off in most children, implicit racial biases usually remain consistent through to adulthood.

Changing Unconscious Racism

I was particularly taken then with a paper in this month’s Developmental Science, which shows that a very simple intervention can disrupt young children’s unconscious racial biases. Xaio and colleagues at Zheijiang Normal University in China repeated a common measure of implicit racial bias: the ‘angry=outgroup’ test. Here photos of faces were morphed so that it was ambiguous whether they were Chinese or African. Each face was presented twice, once looking angry and once looking happy, and respondents asked to decide what race the face was.

As in previous tests, Chinese adults and children tended to say that the happy faces were Chinese and the angry faces were African. This is the same pattern as for white American children and adults who tend to say that happy faces are white and angry faces are black.

The researchers then introduced a very quick intervention. Four, 5- and 6-year-olds were asked to discriminate between 5 African faces and had to remember what number went with each face before they could proceed to the next step. This task forced children to focus on the individual differences between the faces.

When the angry=outgroup test was repeated, the bias had disappeared. Children were just as likely to say that the angry faces were Chinese as African. This simple intervention seems to have disrupted what was previously considered a very deep rooted and difficult to change bias.

The study raises a lot more questions than it answers. Why does it work? How long do the effects last for? How do changes in implicit biases interact with explicit beliefs and behaviour?

But I like it for two reasons. First, it gets to the root of the issue of racist generalisations by tinkering with simple perceptual categorization. If racial prejudice is just a value judgment laid on top of unconscious perceptual and grouping biases then this seems a sensible level to work at.

I also like its simplicity. Very similar effects have been shown with adults but used hundreds of repetitions during the intervention stage. Xiao’s intervention took no more than 15 minutes yet had significant short-term effects. Such a procedure could easily be adapted to a game or an app that, played regularly, might support longer-term change.

Being aware of implicit racial prejudice is important. We need to know it’s there to guard against it influencing our behaviour and we need to shape society to minimise its effects. For instance, racial information is now excluded from job applications and kept confidential so as not to influence decisions at the shortlisting stage.

But tackling implicit racial bias is important too. Vigilance can only take us so far when battling against unconscious demons. Would you like to see how you fare on the Implicit Association Test? Have a go here but don’t despair if, like 70% of the population, you show an unwanted preference for your own race. Being aware of these biases can make a difference and help may be just around the corner.

 

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Outliers: The Story of Success

In Outliers: The Story of Success, best selling author and journalist, Malcolm Gladwell, examines the environmental factors which have provided the opportunity for successful “outliers” to emerge in our society — those highly motivated achievers who outperform the bell curve of traditional expectations.

In this innovative and entertaining case study, Gladwell examines how the combination of personal determination and advantageous social  conditions have allowed highly successful individuals, such as the Beatles, Bill Gates, and the founders of the corporate law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, to cultivate the neceassary talents to take advantage of incredible opportunities when they presented themselves.

In addition, the author explores how cultural legacy affects an individual’s chances of success. Gladwell discusses how the NTSB investigations of conversations prior to plane crashes uncovered the cultural relationship between how individuals are socialized to interact with authority figures, and the ability of flight crews to communicate effectively during a crisis. In examining a series of flight recorders, experts found that cultures which are socialized to display higher deference towards authority figures were less likely to challenge perceived superiors and more likely to make mitigating statements during a crisis, leading them to inadequately express the necessary urgency to induce an emergency response. This discovery has resulted in better safety training throughout the airline industry. Gladwell also introduces a linguistic difference between how Asian and Western cultures communicate numbers and mathematical formulas which he believes may help explain why students in Asian countries consistently rank higher than their Western counterparts in Math and Science scores.

Outliers challenges the prevailing notion that success is simply the result of individual exceptionalism by examining the different social opportunities and cultural legacies between highly talented individuals who have enjoyed success, versus those who have gone unnoticed. The book explores the extent to which an individual’s community mores, social capital, and position in the social hierarchy affects their social opportunities and future chance of success. Gladwell suggests that recognizing and adjusting for cultural strengths and weaknesses creates a greater opportunity for individuals to achieve their maximum potential.

 

Malcolm Gladwell is a bestselling author, journalist and social theorist who is best known for his innovative  theories on complex social relationships.

He has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1996, and has written five New York Times bestsellers, which include: The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (2000), Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005), Outliers: The Story of Success (2008), a collection of his journalism,entitled, What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures (2009),  and David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (2013).

 

Human Resources (2010)

Human Resources: Social Engineering in the 20th Century, explores the complex interaction between mechanical philosophy, behaviorism, and capitalism which seeks to modify human behavior to maximize modern production. The film examines the development of scientific management – social engineering and hierarchical control mechanisms which developed through corporate funded Eugenics research which classifies individuals by race, ethnicity and desirable genetic traits.

The film discusses the broad social aspects of large scale attempts to manipulate employee behavior. The initial desire to increase  workplace efficiency and reduce worker rebellion has led to adverse social effects such as increased anxiety, neurosis and dysfunctional social relationships. The emphasis on individual competition has increased hostilities by pitting individuals against one another.

The frustration-aggression hypothesis suggests that an individual’s feelings of aggression increase in direct proportion with the perceived frustration of their desired goals. When the source of the frustration cannot be challenged, aggression is displaced onto an innocent target leading to scapegoating and heightened cultural violence. These responses are in turn, manipulated by unscrupulous individuals seeking to deflect attention away from systematic and institutional controls to maintain the status quo.

The filmmaker’s propose that the solution to resolving much of our social conflict is through allowing individuals greater participation in their economic outcomes through employee ownership and workplace democracy. The heightened perception of fairness and equity results in increased creativity, collaboration and heightened personal fulfillment, leading to a less aggressive and higher functioning society.

John Paul Sartre: The Existential Choice

Synopsis: The existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre thought that human beings live in anguish. Not because life is terrible. But rather because, we’re ‘condemned to be free’. We’re ‘thrown’ into existence, become aware of ourselves, and have to make choices. Even deciding not to choose is a choice. According to Sartre, every choice reveals what we think a human being should be.

From the BBC Radio 4 series about life’s big questions – A History of Ideas. http://www.bbc.co.uk/historyofideas

This project is from the BBC in partnership with The Open University, the animations were created by Cognitive.

Eastern Philosophy: Daoism of Lao Tzu

Synopsis: Along with Confucianism, “Daoism” (sometimes called “Taoism“) is one of the two great indigenous philosophical traditions of China. Daoist ideas fermented among master teachers who had a holistic view of life. These daoshi (Daoist masters) did not compartmentalize practices by which they sought to influence the forces of reality, increase their longevity, have interaction with realities not apparent to our normal way of seeing things, and order life morally and by rulership. They offered insights we might call philosophical aphorisms. The following six minute excerpt introduces the teachings of Lao Tzu.

William Paley: The Divine Watchmaker

Synopsis: In Natural Theology, the theologian William Paley pointed out that if you found a watch on a heath you’d naturally assume it had a designer. Paley argued, that in a similar way, the human eye, a brilliant piece of biological machinery, must have also had a designer. But does this prove the existence of a Divine Watchmaker?

From the BBC Radio 4 series about life’s big questions – A History of Ideas. http://www.bbc.co.uk/historyofideas

This project is from the BBC in partnership with The Open University, the animations were created by Cognitive.

 

Thomas Aquinas: The First Mover Argument

Every motion was caused by something else. But how, or who, first caused the universe to come into existence? Gillian Anderson summarizes Thomas Aquinas’ theory of the Prime Mover.

From the BBC Radio 4 series about life’s big questions – A History of Ideas. http://www.bbc.co.uk/historyofideas

This project is from the BBC in partnership with The Open University, the animations were created by Cognitive.