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Are our brains wired for race or gender bias?

New Annals book suggests biases are widespread

New York Academy of Sciences

Men are better suited for math and science than women. Whites have more positive feelings toward other whites than blacks. The young are preferred over older people.

These are just a few of the biases discussed by social psychologists Mahzarin R. Banaji and Thierry Devos in their article, "Implicit Self and Identity", published in The Self: From Soul to Brain, Volume 1001 of the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. Based on a recent Academy conference, the book offers the latest research from 16 experts in the areas of neuroscience, cognitive science, social and developmental psychology, anthropology, philosophy and theology. Their article is one of many that examine how the neurological aspects of our unconscious selves influence our explicit, psychological, social and spiritual selves.

Unconscious Stereotyping Among "Liberal" College Students
Using a population of college students who described themselves as "liberal" and professed to have no "consciousness of stereotyping" others, Dr. Banaji and her colleagues tested them for hidden racial, age, national, and gender bias by using rapid association tests, dubbed Implicit Association Tests or IATs. These tests consist of rapid visual and linguistic stimuli designed to provoke responses too quickly for rational consideration. For example, the "Race" test asked subjects to classify words such as "wonderful", "agony", "love" as being either "good" or "bad". Photos of White Americans and African-Americans were then flashed with these words and testers made rapid word-picture associations. Response times indicated that many white Americans exhibited an automatic preference for whites over blacks.

"Biases are more pervasive than we thought," Banaji observed. However, her research suggests that biases often occur unconsciously, outside the realm of self-knowledge or introspection. "These biases often stand in opposition to our conscious beliefs," she says.

Why Bias Exists
Why do biases exist, and what role do they play in the shaping of a personality, or a self? Devos and Banaji explain that bias could be seen as part of the neurobiological process by which the brain builds the conception of his or her own identity, or self.

Citing a large body of research, they show that an individual tends to have marked preference for attributes associated with oneself. One such example is "the name letter effect" - the degree to which people exhibit a marked preference for letters in the alphabet that belongs to their own names. Seen in this context, "in-group" bias could be seen as yet another expression of this implicit bias toward the self.

"Not only do we possess implicit biases concerning outside groups, but we build our self-concept through our relationship to others, out of which comes our attitudes, self-esteem, and stereotypes," Banaji says. "Bias is a by-product of the ordinary ways we think, feel, and learn. To not show these effects is to not be able to think or perceive the world."

Is Bias Unchangeable?
If that is the case, does it mean that bias is an "unchangeable" fact of life, a conclusion that would have large implications for political life and social policy? Could policies such as affirmative action succeed if there is a universal tendency among human beings to harbor biases for people just like themselves?

Banaji disagrees. "Our review of recent research also reveals the plasticity of the self, which develops and exists in close response to the demands of social group and culture," she says. "These implicit associations or biases are not necessarily rigid. What's needed is more research on the interaction between the self and the group collective."

Banaji's article is just one of many fascinating reports in this Annals volume that illuminates how advances in neuroscience and cognitive research are attempting to link the self--our passions, our hatreds, our temperaments and such--to the physical wiring and physiological functioning of the brain.


For more information, visit For review copies, please call Jennifer Tang at 212-838-0230 x257.

Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences

The Self: From Soul to Brain
Volume 1001, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences
Edited by Joseph LeDoux, Jacek Debiec and Henry Moss
November 2003/317 pages/$115
ISBN: 1-57331-450-1 (hardcover); 1-57331-451-X (paper)

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