February/March AMCI Book Review Corner

The AMCI Reading Corner is a crowdsourced resource share aimed to serve as a platform for the AMCI community to share book recommendations and reflect with personal takeaways. Starting with monthly postings, more ways to engage will be shared as the idea grows.

This month, Gene Terry, CAE, IOM of Association Headquarters shares his review of Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People by Mahzarin Banaji, PhD and Anthony Greenwald, PhD

When traveling, we encounter other people at their best or at their worst. Seeing myself in the eyes of others has taught me a lot about the nature of race, gender, and other lines drawn in society. Something about a lone African-American male waiting at a hotel elevator bank provokes interesting reactions in people. When in this situation, I always stand straight, chin and head up, hands out of pocket, with my guestroom key clearly visible. It also never fails that anytime I get into a Lyft/Uber, the driver (usually caucasian) always changes the radio station from Pop to R&B. But, I love Adele!

In Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, psychologists Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald, explored the concepts of hidden-bias mindbugs, which they describe as automatic thought habits that lead to errors in how people perceive, remember, reason or make decisions. The authors further describe mindbugs as illusions we cling to or memories we create because our mind does something implicitly, without conscious thought.

Drs. Banaji and Greenwald note that implicit bias may operate outside of awareness, hidden from those who have it, but the discrimination that it produces is clearly visible to those who are disadvantaged by it. The authors contend that when we realize how hidden biases operate, we have a better chance at mitigating their impact on our decision-making.

As association management leaders, we know the importance of creating meaningful relationships among a cross section of stakeholders in the industries we serve. Blindspot showed how unconscious bias toward others are a fundamental part of the human psyche, which if unchecked, can cause undesired and unintended results.

To illustrate just how innate our hidden biases can be, Blindspot opens with an anecdote about a visiting scientist. Using an overhead projector, the professor shows the class an image of two tables: one apparently noticeably different than the other. The scientist then says, “As you can plainly see, the two table tops are exactly the same in shape and size.” Students respond with puzzled looks until the scientist superimposes a single parallelogram over each table in turn to prove his point. The tables are, indeed, exactly the same size, but none of the students perceived them to be equal.  Drs. Banaji and Greenwald explained how our brains fill in the gaps between what we see with our eyes and what our brain perceives in its attempt to complete the picture and make sense of it. The authors include lists of words and colored squares on a checkerboard as additional mind-bugging examples.

At the heart of Blindspot is a method called the Implicit Association Test (IAT) which was designed by Drs. Banaji and Greenwald to detect the hidden contents of the mind. Its original application was to explore the group-based preferences, stereotypes and identities that may not be accessible to conscious awareness. Since then, it has been used widely to study preferences, beliefs, and identity, and found applications in domains of health, education, business, government, the law and law enforcement. You can take the test  to better understand how it works.

All of us believe that we will act in a fair and impartial manner when it comes to making important decisions. But while the intent is clear, we overlook the role that our past experiences and biases will unwittingly play in our decision-making.

Drs. Banaji and Greenwald emphasized that the title’s “good people” are those of us who strive to align our behavior with our intentions. The aim of Blindspot is to explain the science in plain language to help well-intentioned people achieve that alignment. By gaining awareness, we can adapt beliefs and behaviors and “outsmart the machine” in our heads so we can be fairer to those around us.

Venturing into this book is an invitation to understand our own minds.

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