Why do people’s actions towards others not always align with their intentions?
University of Virginia professor Brian Nosek explained the psychology behind this during a free interactive session Monday evening at the Martin Luther King Performing Arts Center called “Understanding Implicit Bias.” The session discussed how implicit bias can unintentionally influence our judgment and actions through factors that we may not recognize.
The Charlottesville Office of Human Rights sponsored the session. Office Manager Charlene Green gave the opening address, welcoming the dozens of Charlottesville residents who attended the event.
“We’re trying to make sure that we don’t become a blurb out in the conversation about what it means to be engaged in the community,” Green said. “A lot of folks when they now think or hear the word ‘Charlottesville,’ they think of what happened last August. And we’re trying to change that narrative by doing things like this.”
After the white supremacist rallies of Aug. 11-12, Nosek approached the city of Charlottesville and offered to conduct four free sessions on implicit bias, which he has researched since 1996.
In 1998, Nosek co-founded Project Implicit, a non-profit and multi-university collaboration among researchers who study implicit social cognition.
Project Implicit educates the public by offering lectures and workshops on implicit bias and biases in decision-making. It also provides a variety of tools on its website, allowing users to access their own bias.
After receiving his Ph.D. from Yale in 2002, Nosek moved to Charlottesville and joined the Department of Psychology at UVa. In 2014, he took a leave of absence to co-found the Center for Open Science, a technology and culture-change nonprofit that works to increase openness, integrity and reproducibility of research.
In March, nearly 500 city employees and staff attended Nosek’s first implicit bias session. The second session in May was held for the city’s business sector.
Monday’s session extended the series to the entire Charlottesville community.
“What we’re going to talk about tonight is the gap between values and practices,” Nosek began. “How is it that we have feelings, goals, desires, things that we’re trying to do in our everyday lives and simultaneously end up behaving in ways that aren’t consistent with that all the time?”
We do not have complete control over our minds, Nosek explained. They are merely a function of our brains, and the only way our brains receive information is through our sensory system. Our brains must then figure out how to decode information and construct it into an experience.
“However, there is a difference between reality and experience of reality,” Nosek said.
To explain this, Nosek provided multiple examples of how our minds can distort our perception of reality. His first example, called the McGurk effect, was a video of a man saying a syllable. Nosek asked half of the audience to close their eyes while listening and the other half to keep their eyes open.
Those who kept their eyes open believed that the man had said ‘Da da’ or ‘Ga ga’ due to the way he moved his lips. But those who closed their eyes heard the correct syllable, which was ‘Ba ba.’
“Speech reception is not just an auditory form,” Nosek said. “It’s also a visual form.”
In another example video, a construction worker asked a woman for directions. In the middle of their conversation, a group of construction workers carrying a door quickly passed between them. Because the workers were holding the door on the side not facing the woman, the construction worker speaking with her was able to switch places with one of the workers holding the door. The new construction worker continued to converse with the woman as if nothing had happened.
Though the new construction worker wore a different color shirt and was a different size than the previous one, the woman did not notice that she was talking to a different person because she categorized both of them as construction workers, Nosek explained.
“We start to think about individuals in terms of their category instead of their characteristics,” Nosek said.
Nosek discussed how categorizing can negatively affect our beliefs towards different races and ethnicities. He compared two news headlines during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. While the headline showing a picture of a young white couple carrying food through the floodwaters stated that they ‘found’ bread and soda at a store, the headline showing a picture of a young black man in a similar situation accused him of ‘looting’ a store.
The writer of the second headline may not have been conscious of it, but he or she stereotyped the black man as a criminal.
As one of his final examples, Nosek gave the audience an implicit association test. During the first part of the test, the audience had to say whether an image related to Richmond or Charlottesville. Nosek then asked the audience to say ‘white’ when an unpleasant word appeared on the screen and ‘black’ when a pleasant word appeared. He later reversed the test, asking the audience to say ‘white’ when they see a pleasant word and ‘black’ when they see an unpleasant word.
Using statistics from previous tests, Nosek revealed that 81 percent of white participants, including himself, completed the test significantly faster when they categorized unpleasant words with black people and vice versa.
Though black people are more likely to have positive associations with black people, about 40% of black participants exhibited this ‘pro-white’ effect, Nosek explained using a column chart.
“Everyone is exposed to the culture around them,” Nosek said, referencing the numerous negative stereotypes towards black people that persist today in American culture.
To end the session, Nosek gave several suggestions for how one can change their implicit biases.
“Integration is necessary but not sufficient to change lives,” Nosek said.
The best intervention is interdependence, meaning each person’s success depends on how positive their interactions are with each other.
Two-hour diversity training sessions may not change biases much either.
“Real change happens with what people do with that education,” Nosek said. “We must build training skills to avoid influence of bias and restructure our decision-making processes.”
Practical steps to change the way we make decisions include making bias assessment an explicit priority, Nosek explained. He said we must define our equal opportunity goals, continuously evaluate ourselves, take time to look for different perspectives when making important decisions.
We should consider our everyday interactions as well, Nosek said.
“Who is it that I run away from? Who is that I do that extra favor for?” Nosek explained. “Do I help people who are more like me?”
Finally, Nosek emphasized the importance of humility.
“We all have biases,” Nosek concluded. “Be open to your mistakes and to correcting yourself.”
At the beginning of the school year, Nosek will offer his final implicit bias session to educators. He plans to continue to engage in the Charlottesville community using his work on implicit bias.
To take a Project Implicit test measuring your implicit biases, visit https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/.