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AAMC 2014: Mahzarin Banaji on "Blind Spots" and the Hidden Biases of Good People


Academicians are rational, educated and evidence-driven beings who’d like to think they’re beyond bias – or at least, that they can put it aside.

But what if we’re blind to most of our biases? What if we’re not as self aware as we think, that our prejudices rule our thoughts and actions in ways we never imagined?

Such was the uncomfortable realization that on Monday dawned on hundreds of health professionals, medical faculty, hospital staff and administrators at the opening plenary of Association of American Medical Colleges’ annual conference in Chicago.

All of us carry hidden biases—age, gender, race, ethnicity—accumulated from a lifetime of experiences with various social groups. In health care they shape how we see patients. They influence medical school admissions and hiring decisions. And they can slow scientific progress by blinding us to surprise findings.

We know this, intellectually. But Harvard University social ethics professor and author, Mahzarin Banaji brought it home for attendees experientially by having everyone take an Implicit Association Test.

Names and words associated with “career” and “family” flashed onto the ballroom screen and Banaji challenged everyone to sort them as being associated with either men or women. Attendees quickly linked male names and career-oriented words (doctor, faculty) with men, and linked female names and family-oriented words (home, children) with women.

But when the categories were mixed––men/family in one column and women/career in the other––the sorting task was slowed. The audience audibly struggled and groaned. Their shouted responses came at half the rate as before.

Banaji’s own performance, years ago, on that same test was much the same, she admitted. Though she has devoted her career to uncovering hidden biases, she said, she lives in fear every day of succumbing to her own.

“I come from an incredibly male-dominated science…all my heroes were men,” she said. “In my mind, it is very likely that the concept of talent, the concept of genius, the concept of high quality work and good research comes all bundled up in a certain shape or form.”

The prototype is so powerful that when a young woman “walks into to my office, wearing her pink-colored flip flops and saying in a Valley Girl voice, ‘You know professor, I think I like have this interesting idea for an experiment,’” it can be hard to take her seriously, Banaji said.

Our perceptions of people can be prejudiced by something as simple as the register or pitch of their voice, their shape, their eyes or the way they’re dressed.

In her book, “Blindspot,” Banaji and co-author Greenwald, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, offer tips for overcoming our prejudices.

Like any bad habit, biases are hard to recognize and change.

But Banaji said, writing down one’s values and intentions serves as protection against bias. We can teach students to do that.

We can’t change the anatomy of our brains, but we can make sure our own minds don’t bias our behavior. We can’t eliminate bias, she said, but we can welcome a diversity of biases.

By: Kirsten Stewart

Kirsten Stewart is a senior writer for University of Utah Health Sciences