You May Not Think What You Think You Think

You May Not Think What You Think You Think

Psychology professors Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald explore the labyrinthian path our irrational beliefs follow – or don’t.

Mahzarin R. Banaji – who teaches social ethics in Harvard University’s psychology department – and Anthony G. Greenwald – who teaches psychology at the University of Washington – offer an intriguing, eye-opening journey through aspects of yourself you may not recognize. For example, if you consider yourself fair-minded and nonjudgmental, you might be shocked to learn that – according to their findings – you still hold prejudices against some group of people and maybe more than one.

Principles of equal rights and fair treatment, values essential to any modern democratic political system, have existed for barely a few centuries.Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald

In 1994, Greenwald created the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which assesses bias. Millions of people have taken this test. The authors studied people’s answers and learned that bias is widespread and commonplace.

Pointing to a misalignment between good intentions and actual behavior, they find people are seldom cognizant of their mental “blindspots,” where automatic biases – which they call “mindbugs” – take root. Although the authors occasionally get bogged down in research-related details, their insights will serve students of the human mind who aren’t afraid also to look into a mirror.

Hidden Agendas

Banaji and Greenwald attest that people base their perceptions of other people or groups on data stored in their subconscious minds. These mindbugs generate involuntary biases, prejudices and judgments. For example, managers rarely evaluate employees purely on their competency and integrity; each person’s social group carries weight. People place more trust in those who come from similar ethnic or racial groups – even when their misplaced trust proves detrimental.

Stereotypes do not take special effort to acquire. Quite the opposite – they are acquired effortlessly and take special effort to discount.Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald

“Social mindbugs” may explain why bank loan officers approve certain people for loans and why the police stop some types of people more than others. Mindbugs defy rational thought and action. However, understanding how they work can help people overcome deep-seated biases and prejudices, thereby treating others more fairly and promoting a more just society.

“Impression Management”

Most people consider themselves honest and forthright, yet they lie routinely, especially to themselves.

Economists, sociologists and psychologists have confirmed time and again that the social group to which a person belongs can be isolated as a definitive cause of the treatment he or she receives.Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald

In 1994, author Anthony Greenwald created the Implicit Association Test (IAT) that gathers information about peoples’ attitudes, likes and dislikes – data that researchers could not access using traditional survey methodology. The Race IAT, Greenwald’s second test, became a major breakthrough. Conclusive Race IAT results reveal that 75% of white respondents prefer whites to Blacks. Results consistently surprise respondents who show white preferences even though they consider themselves blind to skin color.

“Reflective and Automatic”

The mind’s reflective and automatic components influence behavior. Reflective thought is conscious, but automatic thoughts, feelings and beliefs are innate and often inexplicable. Automatic thought, the authors reveal, may hold opinions and beliefs that contradict a person’s mindful intentions.

Every day, automatic preferences steer us toward less conscious decisions, but they are hard to explain because they remain impervious to the probes of conscious motivation.Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald

Hidden biases are an unpleasant reality in many cultures, but when tests such as the IAT expose biases, the conscious mind can overcome them and create positive change.


Stereotypes occur when people ascribe particular characteristics or attributes to everyone who is in the same group. Forming categories inevitably leads to prejudgment, and everyone uses stereotypes.

Psychological research on attitudes toward race is a relatively recent scientific endeavor, dating back less than a century. Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald

Society more closely scrutinizes people who belong to groups that the majority culture tends to view suspiciously.

Automatic stereotypes apply to genders, too. For decades, people regarded the workplace as a male domain and viewed females as home caregivers. Even though half of the US workforce is now female, most people still consider women as the dominant in-home presence. Results from the Gender-Career IAT indicate that 75% of male respondents and 80% of female respondents associate females with family and males with work. However, the younger the respondent, the weaker this automatic bias.

Overcoming Mindbugs

In 1970, only one in 10 instrumentalists in America’s most prominent symphony orchestras were female.

For years, orchestra applicants auditioned before a committee of orchestra members. Then, major orchestras experimented with placing a screen between the auditioning musician and the selection committee, so the committee could hear but not see applicants. In 20 years of blind auditions, the hiring rate for females in major orchestras jumped from 20% to 40%.

Social scientists credit the person who admits to cheating…with greater honesty than the one who claims not to cheat.Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald

Unfortunately, the blind evaluation technique is not viable in many circumstances. No company hires without a face-to-face interview. Supervisors can’t conduct employee evaluations without knowing who they are reviewing. Leasing agents won’t rent an apartment to a person they never meet. And, the mindbugs keep working, given that researchers have established no successful techniques for killing them.

Black and White

The authors report that social scientists generally agree that compared with white Americans, Black Americans earn less, experience greater unemployment, receive less schooling and have less access to reasonable health care. People acknowledge their opinions of particular groups, but remain unaware of the negative associations they may harbor toward them. People often fail to recognize the differences between their “explicit and implicit” attitudes. Though incidences of overt prejudice in the United States have decreased, Americans still have hidden biases.

Prejudice’s Processes

Banaji and Greenwald provide a rare understanding of prejudice, as it were, from inside the brain to its outward manifestations. The authors have made their careers parsing the internal contradictions of – pretty much – everyone’s attitudes toward everyone else. Reading this will likely make you want either to take Greenwald’s IAT tests or to run from them as fast as you can.

Whether we want them to or not, the attitudes of the culture at large infiltrate us.Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald

While the authors do suggest practical solutions, this is not a self-help book. It’s an advanced textbook for students of psychology and for laypeople willing to explore statistics and persevere through somewhat dry academic language to better comprehend their sometimes-opaque beliefs and actions – and everybody else’s.

Anthony G. Greenwald edited Psychological Foundations of Attitudes with co-editors Timothy C. Brock and Thomas M. Ostrom. Mahzarin R. Banaji and Susan A. Gelman wrote Navigating the Social World: What Infants, Children and Other Species Can Teach Us (Social Cognition and Social Neuroscience). Other compelling works on the bases and functioning of prejudice include White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin Diangelo and Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudices That Shapes What We See, Think and Do by Jennifer L. Eberhardt.

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