On Thursday, January 21, Dr. Mahzarin Banaji, a psychologist at Harvard University who coined the term “implicit bias,” gave a talk titled “Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People” as part of the Lufkin series of psychology talks.
The Lufkin series is funded through the Lufkin Lectureship Fund, which is sponsored by alumnus Ed Lufkin and his family. Each year, the psychology department invites one distinguished guest speaker to campus. This year the department wanted to use this opportunity to address racism. Prior to the talk, Department Chair Ken Abrams accepted speaker suggestions from faculty and staff, and Psychology major Ineke Cordova ’22 suggested Dr. Banaji.
Cordova was already familiar with Banaji’s research when the department asked for suggested speakers. She encountered Banaji’s term “implicit bias” for the first time in high school, after coming across the Implicit Association Test (IAT). She found that the concept of implicit bias answered her question about how racism could be almost impossible to escape in America, despite the fact that “so many of the people that [she] knew, including [herself], tried their hardest to be accepting people.”
“Having the words to be able to reflect properly really changed how I viewed race, my past interactions, how I needed to really be responsive to how my actions were received rather than my intent,” she added. Cordova’s previous knowledge of Banaji’s research and its impact on her were the driving forces behind suggesting Banaji for the Lufkin talk. She firmly believes that “if Dr. Banaji’s research was taught more widely, and really listened to, then society as a whole would be wholly better for it.”
According to Psychyology Professor Neil Lutsky, “the psychology faculty as a whole enthusiastically endorsed this possibility.” Luckily, Lutsky had a personal connection to Banaji—they had worked together previously when he was teaching at Ashoka University in India in 2015. He reached out to Banaji, and she graciously obliged to give the talk. Lutsky added that Abrams and Departmental Administrative Assistant Peggy Johnson helped make additional arrangements for the talk.
Banaji gave her talk via Zoom last week. The entire Carleton community was invited to listen. Lutsky noted that “Banaji herself encouraged our efforts to invite the entire Carleton community to the talk. She believes in the import of her message and the foundation of that message in psychological research, and she’s eager to use psychological science to make a difference in the world. She wanted to have an impact.”
Banaji addressed the inevitable biases that “good people,” or people who act with good intentions, have just by living in certain communities, surrounded by certain people. She incorporated pictures and videos to speak to her point about implicit bias and also included two anecdotes.
Cordova was most struck by Banaji’s use of anecdotes, noting that “she made a point to say that little to no generalizations could be extracted from them.”
“I do believe in the power of a single person’s story, and how one person can make an impact,” Cordova said. She cited the murder of George Floyd as an example of an individual’s story that made a powerful impression.
“But I think sometimes a broader power is lost when only stories are used,” Cordova continued. She noted the importance of presenting evidence on topics like racial bias as well. “Dr. Banaji clearly presented this evidence later, of course, but the daily news often doesn’t.”
Banaji was thorough in explaining her research, and it conveyed an impactful message: that whatever our conscious beliefs are, we may not act in accordance with them; instead we may act in a way that represents our hidden and conditioned biases. Lutsky called this a “sobering, difficult realization.” He believes that “it should make us less sure of ourselves, more attentive to our own contributions to racism, more open to feedback from others around us and more willing to consider means of acting consistently with our professed values.”
Banaji’s talk was successful, with over one hundred attendees. In the wake of her talk, Abrams hopes students will take away that “even for individuals who earnestly believe they harbor no biases, implicit biases can affect the judgments we form about others.”