(Updated) In a world of constant scrutiny and infinite memory, what once might have been a fleeting moment of lost control can easily become a life-shattering scandal. Just ask Rick Sanchez, the CNN anchor who was recently fired, after making comments during a satellite radio interview that many considered to be anti-Semitic.
The Cuban-American journalist has since apologized for his remarks, and suggested that exhaustion from overwork was to blame for his inappropriate comments. He described the statements that got him fired as wrong, careless and offensive — and as an uncharacteristic misstep, the result of a transient state of extreme emotion and fatigue rather than a reflection of any deep-seated biased beliefs. (More on Time.com: How Not to Feel Lonely in a Crowd)
The argument is an interesting one, and one that psychologists have pondered for years. Who is the authentic self — the rude or bigoted person who may come out when we’re drunk or enraged or exhausted? Or the person we are the other 99% of time, when sobriety allows us to tamp down our unsavory impulses?
Recent advances in research offer new insight into long-standing questions about the authentic self. One such technique known as the Implicit Association Test (IAT) was developed in the mid-1990s by a Yale student and her advisor. Back then, although psychologists knew that people’s self-accounts of their own motivations and beliefs were incomplete, there was no way to measure unconscious processing. “It became clear that we needed to think about alternative ways of understanding the mind because people don’t always say what they think and even more, people don’t know what they think,” says Mahzarin Banaji, who co-created the IAT and is now a professor of psychology at Harvard.
The IAT — which involves categorizing words and faces — is based on the simple premise that harder tasks take longer to do. So, for example, if a person is slower at pairing positive attributes with African Americans than with whites, it would suggest that he or she has an implicit bias against blacks. The test has been adapted to measure virtually every type of bias, including race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and even tendency toward suicide. (More on Time.com: ‘It Gets Better’: Wisdom From Grown-Up Gays and Lesbians to Bullied Kids)
By themselves, these unconscious associations are perhaps interesting but not especially useful. Data suggest that about 88% of white Americans and a startling 48% of African Americans show a bias in favor of whites on this test, but that doesn’t mean all respondents who show implicit bias engage in actual discrimination. Indeed, it doesn’t even mean that all respondents who show implicit bias actually harbor bias; they may simply be reflecting cultural knowledge of stereotypes or mere familiarity.
But regardless of the nature of the unconscious bias, in many cases it does affect behavior. “Some [implicit bias], at least, is coming from living in a world that’s unequal and a world that’s racially stratified. Those correlations are there and they’re real and they influence how we think. That can in turn influence perception and action,” says Jennifer Eberhardt, an associate professor of psychology at Stanford.
In April a study published in the journal Psychological Science found that faster associations on the IAT between self and death predicted suicide attempts better than known risk factors like depression. People with high levels of such associations were six times more likely to attempt suicide within six months than people who did not exhibit the same bias.
In a 2007 study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, doctors with high implicit bias against blacks were less likely to recommend clot-busting drugs to treat heart disease in hypothetical scenarios with black patients. Meanwhile, real-world research finds that doctors are twice as likely to recommend these potentially life-saving drugs to white patients than black patients, so it’s possible that bias could partly account for the difference. (More on Time.com: Were You Born This (Un)Happy, or Did You Marry Into It?)
The effects are even measurable in election results, according to author and journalist Shankar Vedantam, whose book, The Hidden Brain, explores unconscious motivations. “If you look at Congressional districts, if you tell me what the unconscious racial biases are, I will generally be able to tell you whether they will elect a Republican or a Democrat,” he says. Although the effect of unconscious bias isn’t huge, in close races it can make a difference.
But do the results of the IAT really mean that most whites and nearly half of all blacks are “really” racists in their hearts? “I stay away from the words ‘true’ and ‘real.’ But the question is a good one: when Michael Richards loses it, I do think it is showing us a side of him that he is otherwise better able to keep under wraps,” says Banaji, referring to the Seinfeld actor and comedian, who in an infamous 2006 episode unleashed racial slurs against black members of his audience in a comedy club. “I don’t think it is deception. I think we all have these things in our heads to some extent and we are just good at controlling them.”
Banaji, who is Indian, says she was surprised to find that the IAT revealed her own bias against people of color.
A fascinating series of studies shows how easy it can be to lose grip on that self-control. For example, as people age, their ability to inhibit impulses is reduced, a loss of control that may be associated with an increased expression of racism. In one study, elderly participants whose mental focus was purposefully disrupted by a laboratory distraction task were found to be more likely to make biased remarks. Interestingly, however, providing rapid fuel to the brain decreases the expression of bias: in another study, adults who drank lemonade containing real sugar expressed fewer homophobic sentiments than those who were given Splenda-sweetened lemonade.
This is no argument for drinking full-sugar beverages, but it does suggest that transient states — like, say, drunkenness or hunger — can affect a person’s self-control. Basically, more brain power can mean less prejudice.
A person’s attitude toward bias may help reduce it as well. Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford, and her colleagues recently published a study illustrating why some people confront racism and others do not. Dweck found that those who believed racism was a permanent characteristic (“that person is a racist”) were four times less likely to confront research assistants who made racist statements than those who saw racism as changeable (“that person just acted in a racist manner”). (More on Time.com: “Mompetition”: Why You Just Can’t Make Mom Friends).
“People who believe that personality is malleable, that you can really influence other people are the ones who [speak up]. They understood that this might be a person with misconceptions who needed education. They kept an open mind,” says Dweck.
That attitude applies to people’s own behavior as well. “People who think prejudice is fixed really seek to avoid interracial situations because they think if it comes out of them, it will show that they’re permanently prejudiced,” says Dweck.
Further, Dweck’s study found that it’s relatively easy to get people to change their views about the changeability of racism, at least in the short term. After researchers asked participants to read a report emphasizing studies showing that people can change, they were 20% to 25% more likely to say they would confront prejudice.
But the question remains, who is the authentic you? Although overt racism and sexism are no longer socially acceptable, that doesn’t mean people have stopped harboring the underlying prejudices. They will make mistakes and let things “leak out” they shouldn’t say, says Valerie Purdie-Vaughns, an assistant professor of psychology at Columbia. “Does that make them racist? My perspective is that it’s more complicated, to label someone as racist or not or sexist or not is not really productive,” she says. “It’s not that there’s a private self that’s real and a public self that is a facade.”
Rather, as Purdie-Vaughns sees it, we have two systems operating in our brains, one slow and deliberate, which we show publicly, and one that probably evolved to help us make rapid choices, which often reflects culturally acquired information and tends to cause less thoughtful behavior. (More on Time.com: Psychology vs. Psychiatry: What’s the Difference, and Which Is Better?)
Fortunately, a large body of research shows that simply acting in a way that reflects particular values can strengthen belief in those values. If we want our “real” selves and our ideal selves to line up, we have to behave in a more egalitarian fashion — even if at first that means simply pretending not to be carrying the heavy, disturbing and uncomfortable cultural baggage that we are.
If you’d like to get your own results on the IAT and possibly participate in research on it, click here.
Correction [Oct. 11]: The original version of this story conflated two studies on bias, one looking at self-control in the elderly and racism, the other looking at the influence of sugar on homophobia in adults. The story has been updated to correct the error.
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