Are Our Brains Wired for Race or Gender Bias? New Annals Book Suggests Biases
Are Widespread

Men are better suited for math and science than women. Whites have more
positive feelings toward other whites than blacks. The young are preferred over
older people.

      These are just a few of the biases discussed by social psychologists
Mahzarin R. Banaji and Thierry Devos in their article, "Implicit Self and
Identity", published in The Self: From Soul to Brain, Volume 1001 of the Annals
of the New York Academy of Sciences. Based on a recent Academy conference, the
book offers the latest research from 16 experts in the areas of neuroscience,
cognitive science, social and developmental psychology, anthropology,
philosophy and theology. Their article is one of many that examine how the
neurological aspects of our unconscious selves influence our explicit,
psychological, social and spiritual selves.

      Unconscious Stereotyping Among "Liberal" College Students

      Using a population of college students who described themselves as
"liberal" and professed to have no "consciousness of stereotyping" others, Dr.
Banaji and her colleagues tested them for hidden racial, age, national, and
gender bias by using rapid association tests, dubbed Implicit Association Tests
or IATs. These tests consist of rapid visual and linguistic stimuli designed to
provoke responses too quickly for rational consideration. For example, the
"Race" test asked subjects to classify words such as "wonderful", "agony",
"love" as being either "good" or "bad". Photos of White Americans and
African-Americans were then flashed with these words and testers made rapid
word-picture associations. Response times indicated that many white Americans
exhibited an automatic preference for whites over blacks.

      "Biases are more pervasive than we thought," Banaji observed. However,
her research suggests that biases often occur unconsciously, outside the realm
of self-knowledge or introspection. "These biases often stand in opposition to
our conscious beliefs," she says.

      Why Bias Exists

      Why do biases exist, and what role do they play in the shaping of a
personality, or a self? Devos and Banaji explain that bias could be seen as
part of the neurobiological process by which the brain builds the conception of
his or her own identity, or self.

      Citing a large body of research, they show that an individual tends to
have marked preference for attributes associated with oneself. One such example
is "the name letter effect" - the degree to which people exhibit a marked
preference for letters in the alphabet that belongs to their own names. Seen in
this context, "in-group" bias could be seen as yet another expression of this
implicit bias toward the self.

      "Not only do we possess implicit biases concerning outside groups, but we
build our self-concept through our relationship to others, out of which comes
our attitudes, self-esteem, and stereotypes," Banaji says. "Bias is a
by-product of the ordinary ways we think, feel, and learn. To not show these
effects is to not be able to think or perceive the world."

      Is Bias Unchangeable?

      If that is the case, does it mean that bias is an "unchangeable" fact of
life, a conclusion that would have large implications for political life and
social policy? Could policies such as affirmative action succeed if there is a
universal tendency among human beings to harbor biases for people just like
themselves?

      Banaji disagrees. "Our review of recent research also reveals the
plasticity of the self, which develops and exists in close response to the
demands of social group and culture," she says. "These implicit associations or
biases are not necessarily rigid. What's needed is more research on the
interaction between the self and the group collective."

      Banaji's article is just one of many fascinating reports in this Annals v
olume that illuminates how advances in neuroscience and cognitive research are
attempting to link the self-our passions, our hatreds, our temperaments and
such-to the physical wiring and physiological functioning of the brain.

      The Annals Extra column includes an overview of the book and a slideshow
of fine art and sample chapter by Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel." Link: <>

      Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences

      The Self: From Soul to Brain
      Volume 1001, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences
      Edited by Joseph LeDoux, Jacek Debiec and Henry Moss
      November 2003/317 pages/$115
      ISBN: 1-57331-450-1 (hardcover); 1-57331-451-X (paper)