Don't Blink

I've talked in the past about how unconscious bias works—and how it's an aspect of some very healthy parts of our brains and bodies. For very good reasons, we all navigate by intuition, habit, and practiced behaviors every single day. Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer have written about these neurological facts beautifully and well. Every parent knows how time-consuming it is to have to articulate and teach habits we don't even realize we navigate by. Walk on the right and pass on the left. The fork goes here and the knife and spoon go there. It's not polite to say that in public. You can't take that until you pay. Turn your head this way to breathe while you're swimming. That truck means that person delivers the mail. Don't talk back to the people in airport security. If our brains had to sort consciously through every action, behavior, and category (the way parents have to explain things all day) before we could act, we'd be paralyzed. If we didn't practice thinking in categories—blue uniform, police; red uniform, fire—we'd never get anything done. Neurologically normal human beings are absolutely brilliant at absorbing these categories without being consciously aware.

For instance, I used to worry that my nephews—who live in a conservative state—would absorb local attitudes. Then I accidentally came upon one of them, then eight years old, mockingly using a particular local accent, alone in his room. (If you've watched the Cars movies, think about Tow Mater, that incarnation of our national elites' distaste for the rural or insistently local.) To my chagrin, I realized that without anyone telling him explicitly to think this way, he had instead picked up on his cohort's sense of superiority toward particular class markers—and that bias would inoculate him against whatever offensive rants he heard delivered in that voice.

The same happens, of course, not just with class but also with race, sex, religion, modes of dress: Without thinking, we dismiss or accept based on the superficial, or based on misinformation conveyed in the past by the culture. Without our minds' extreme facility at categorizing, we're paralyzed. With it, we're biased. What's a person with a conscience to do?

Stop and think, just for a second. That's all. This weekend in the Times, Frank Partnoy, a professor at University of San Diego, wrote a very nice essay about the pause, in which he laid out information that gave me tremendous hope. Here's the core argument:

Scientists have found that although we are prone to snap overreactions, if we take a moment and think about how we are likely to react, we can reduce or even eliminate the negative effects of our quick, hard-wired responses. For example, countless studies have shown that physicians’ immediate, unconscious reactions to racial minorities lead them to undertreat black patients. In one study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine in 2007, researchers asked several hundred doctors about a hypothetical 50-year-old male patient who showed up with chest pain. The researchers gave the doctors a photograph of the man, randomly varying his race. Half saw him as white; half saw him as black. Sure enough, although the doctors insisted they were not racially biased, they were more likely to prescribe thrombolysis, an anti-blood-clotting procedure, for the white patient, while giving the black patient a less-aggressive prescription. The doctors didn’t appear racist, yet their unconscious snap reactions led them to treat blacks differently — the very definition of racism. However, about one in four of the doctors guessed that the study was designed to test racial bias. They stopped for a moment and considered how they might react differently depending on race. The researchers found that this “aware” subgroup did not treat patients differently. Once they paused to consider whether race was an issue, race was no longer an issue.

I've written in the past about the implicit association test, online at Harvard, which helps us see what our unconscious biases might be. I took the gender test and flunked miserably: My brain has hopelessly tangled up women and home, and men and work. Oh well! As long as I think about it, I can untangle them. Partnoy is right: Stopping and thinking is the best way to re-engage our best and freshest perspectives on the world. Time to take a vacation (coming in two weeks) and rest that speeded-up brain!

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