“Neither our evolutionary path nor our present culture dooms us to be held hostage by these biases.”
In honor of the protests appearing around the nation, we’ve made our e-course on racial bias free to the public. In this series of short videos, Stanford psychologist and MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient Dr. Jennifer L. Eberhardt shares the science of how bias really works, and what we can do to overcome it. For more information, be sure to check out her book, Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do.
Jennifer Eberhardt in Conversation with Daniel Pink
Also listen to our podcast episode featuring Jennifer Eberhardt. And if you’d like to dive deeper into Biased and more must-read nonfiction, join us for the summer with a 3-month free trial to the Next Big Idea Club.
In her career as a social psychologist and professor of psychology at Stanford University, Jennifer Eberhardt has dedicated herself to researching and teaching about implicit bias—what it is, where it comes from, how it affects us, and how we can address it. Implicit bias is not a new way of calling someone a racist. In fact, you don’t have to be a racist at all to be influenced by it. Rather, implicit bias is a kind of distorting lens that’s a product of both the architecture of our brains and the disparities in our society.
Our ideas about race are shaped by the stereotypes to which we are exposed on a daily basis. And one of the strongest stereotypes in American society associates blacks with criminality.
A few years ago, Eberhardt took her son, Everett, on a plane. He was five years old, wide-eyed, and trying to take it all in. He looked around and saw a black passenger, then said, “Hey, that guy looks like Daddy.” Eberhardt looked at the man and… he didn’t look anything like Everett’s father. She couldn’t help but be struck by the irony: the race researcher having to explain to her own black child that not all black people look alike.
Just as she was about to begin lecturing, her son looked up at her and said, “I hope he doesn’t rob the plane.”
“Why would you say that?” she asked, as gently as she could. “You know Daddy wouldn’t rob a plane.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Well, why did you say that?”
Everett looked up at her with a sad face and said, “I don’t know why I said that. I don’t know why I was thinking that.”
Even with no malice, the black–crime association made its way into the mind of her five-year-old child—just as it has into all of us.
Eberhardt wrote this book to show the many surprising places and ways that implicit bias affects all sorts of decisions we make during the normal course of our lives—the homes we buy, the people we hire, the way we treat our neighbors. People can hold biases based on all sorts of characteristics: skin color, age, weight, ethnic origin, accent, disability, height, gender. But neither our evolutionary path nor our present culture dooms us to be held hostage by these biases. Change requires a kind of open-minded attention that is well within our reach. There are successful approaches we can learn from and new ways of thinking that we can build upon.
In this series of videos, Eberhardt will take you on the journey she has taken, sharing the unexpected findings she has uncovered, the stories she has heard, the struggles she has encountered, and the triumphs that have inspired her.
The Surprising Science of Recognition
When she was twelve years old, Eberhardt’s family moved from Cleveland, Ohio to a nearly all-white suburb called Beachwood. Until then, every person she’d had any meaningful contact with was black—her family, her neighbors, her classmates and friends. Now, at her new middle school, she was surrounded by white faces for the first time—and she found that she could not distinguish one from the other.
She tried training herself to pay attention to features that she’d never needed to notice before: eye color, various shades of blond hair, freckles. She tried remembering the most distinctive feature about each person she encountered. But all the faces would ultimately blend together again in her mind.
For nearly fifty years, scientists have been documenting that people are much better at recognizing faces of their own race than faces of other races, a finding dubbed the “other-race effect.” By the time babies are three months old, their brains react more strongly to faces of their own race than to faces of people unlike them. That race-selective response only grows stronger as children move into adolescence, which suggests that it is driven, in part, by the circumstances of our lives. We learn what’s important—the faces we see every day—and over time, our brain builds a preference for those faces.
In 2014, there was an alarming rise in strong-arm robberies in a Chinatown shopping district. Apparently, black teenage boys were roaming the streets, snatching the purses of middle-aged Asian women. The police developed leads, made arrests, and even recovered some stolen property.
But the cases fell apart before the suspects could be prosecuted. Why? Because even if a victim had seen the robber’s face, none of the women could pick the culprits out of a police lineup. As the young men began to figure out that Asian women couldn’t tell them apart, it turned into a license to steal.
The situation led Eberhardt to recall her own as a newcomer to that suburb. She, too, tried the “remember what’s distinctive” strategy. But she failed, and the Asian women failed, despite their strong desire to get it right.
Driven by both scientific curiosity and memories of her own adolescence, Eberhardt found herself wondering: Might our expertise in recognizing faces of our own race—and failing to recognize those of others—display its own neurobiological signature?
To look further into the matter, she began working with a team of Stanford neuroscientists who specialized in human memory. Together, they recruited dozens of white and black volunteers, and subjected them to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans. This allowed them to track the blood flow changes in the brain that illustrate neural activity as they showed the volunteers a series of faces of black and white strangers.
Theirs was the first neuroimaging study to demonstrate that there is a neural component to the same-race advantage in the face-recognition process. Race, as it turns out, could exert influence over one of the brain’s most basic functions.
The Dangers of Stereotypes
Categorization—grouping like things together—is not some aberrant feature of the human brain, a process that some people engage in and others do not. It is a universal function that allows us to organize and manage the overload of stimuli that constantly bombard us. It helps our brains make judgments more quickly and efficiently by instinctively relying on patterns that seem predictable.
The categorization process applies not just to people—it works on all things. Just as we place people into categories, we place other animals into categories. We place food into categories. We place furniture into categories. And we fill every category we develop with information and imbue it with feelings that guide our actions toward it.
The categories we have about social groups work in a similar way. But in this instance, we label the beliefs we have about social groups “stereotypes.” We all tend to access and apply stereotypes to help us make sense of other people. However, the content of those stereotypes is culturally generated and culturally specific.
In the United States, blacks are so strongly associated with threat and aggression that this stereotypic association can even impact our ability to accurately read the facial expressions of black people. For example, a black man who is excited might appear angry. Fear can be misread as outrage, silence taken as belligerence.
Once, Eberhardt heard an officer share an unforgettable story about working undercover. “I saw a guy at a distance who didn’t look right,” he told her. “This guy looked similar to me—black, same build, same height. But this guy had a scruffy beard, unkempt hair, ripped clothes, and he looked like he was up to no good.”
The officer grew more concerned, certain that the man had a gun. As he got closer to a nearby office building, he lost sight of the man and began to feel panicked. And then, suddenly he saw the guy again, but now he was inside the office building. He could see the man clearly through the glass wall, walking in the same direction and at the same pace as he was walking.
Finally, he turned abruptly to confront the man. The man stopped too. And when the officer looked him in the eyes, a shock went through him: “I realized that I was staring at myself,” he said. “I was the person I feared. I was staring at my own reflection through the mirrored wall. That entire time, I was tailing myself; I was profiling myself.”
Is clutching your purse when you see a black man a reflection of prejudice? Is presuming a Latino person doesn’t speak English logical, or ignorant? Is it bias speaking when you compliment an Asian student on those high math scores? When you think a teenager’s music is louder than it is?
How often are we really the tolerant, fair, open-minded person we want to be? And how can we learn to check ourselves and mute the negative impact that bias can have?
Selective Attention and Procedural Justice
Decades of research have shown that across a variety of professions, people care as much about how they are treated during the course of an interaction as the outcome of that interaction. In the policing context, this suggests that people stopped by police care as much about how police officers treat them as they do about whether they get a ticket.
In fact, both research and real-life experience have shown that if officers act in accordance with a few simple tenets—giving people voice, treating them with fairness and respect—residents will be more inclined to think of the police as legitimate authorities, and therefore be more likely to comply with the law. Yale law professors Tom Tyler and Tracey Meares have worked together to develop a model for training police officers on the principles of procedural justice.
But why do officers need to be reminded of these principles? Because one of the primary barriers to good policing is the cynicism that officers develop while working the streets. It’s easy for officers to get beaten down by fighting crime. Over time, they become bitter about putting their lives on the line for people who don’t seem to respect them or appreciate their efforts. They become frustrated about attempting to protect victims who later become perpetrators, or trying to solve crimes when witnesses refuse to talk. They get worn down by living in a constant state of hypervigilance. And that leads to a vicious cycle that can sabotage communication and escalate even the slightest provocation.
As that cynicism grows, it also narrows their vision. The 3% of people who actively engage in violent crime in the city dominate the stage, while the other 97% go dim. Officers begin to see all the residents of the communities they serve and protect through this tiny window.
That sort of selective attention is not limited to the police—it’s a basic feature of brain functioning. Perhaps the most famous demonstration of selective attention was developed by two cognitive psychologists named Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris. The demo involves asking people to watch a silent, thirty-second video clip of two teams of people passing around a basketball. Unsuspecting viewers are asked to count the exact number of passes made by the team in the light-colored shirts. People are so focused on accurately counting the number of passes that more than half of them completely miss it when someone in a gorilla suit enters the scene on the right, pauses in the middle for a chest pound, and then exits the scene on the left. Their attention is so focused on the task at hand that their brain records the gorilla as irrelevant.
The “invisible gorilla” reminds us of how selective our social perception may be. Many officers who patrol diverse, high-crime communities come to view the racial disparities in policing as the sole result of who commits the crimes. But people who live in those communities view those disparities as a result of police bias, because they know that the majority of their neighbors are not criminals.
In procedural justice training, officers are taught to reorient their view, to think about every interaction with the public as they would a bank transaction. They can use that interaction to make a deposit that will increase trust and improve police-community relations, or they can allow it to become a withdrawal, decreasing trust and increasing police-community tension. Each interaction has the capacity to influence people well beyond the individual officer and the resident directly involved.
We Are All Human, and Nothing Less
When millions of Irish immigrated en masse to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century—on the same converted cargo ships that had carried enslaved Africans to American shores—they were greeted by blatant prejudice. Signs that proclaimed “No Irish Need Apply” were accompanied by simian images of Celtic ape-men with sloping foreheads and monstrous faces. But they were able, over time, to leave those ugly caricatures behind and become white.
Blacks, however, remain strapped to the ape association by a history of slavery, present-day disparities in almost every significant domain of life, and a collection of overlapping racial stereotypes that reinforce those inequities. This kind of animal imagery is as grotesque as it is problematic, as it can shape how the public evaluates the choices police officers make.
In a study Eberhardt published in 2008 with Phillip Goff and others, they showed people a video of officers beating a suspect that study participants could not clearly see. Some were led to believe that the suspect was white, while others were led to believe that he was black. When they exposed viewers subliminally to ape-relevant words before watching the film, they were more likely to view the brutal police treatment as justified—but only if they believed the suspect was black.
Primed subliminally by words like “baboon,” “gorilla,” and “chimpanzee,” they were more likely to believe that the black suspect’s behavior made that kind of police violence necessary, that he deserved the beating he received. That’s how strong the connection can be—even when we don’t feel or see it, it can operate on us.
The years spent presenting this research left Eberhardt disheartened and weary. There is something destabilizing about having to accept that one’s tribe is seen as a permanent outlier in her country’s collective consciousness. And yet, eventually Eberhardt came to realize that she wasn’t bound to that misery; she could reconfigure her thinking, and reconnect with the hope that first drew her to study the mental associations that fuel bigotry and shape inequality.
She could pick up the tools of neuroscience to demonstrate how humans are not static beings affixed to a predetermined hierarchy. Our brains, our minds, are molded and remolded by our experiences and our environments. We have the power to change our ways of thinking, to scrub away the residue of ancient demons.
Home Sweet Home
A while ago, Eberhardt met with Sarah Leary, one of the founders of Nextdoor, a social networking service that serves as a sort of giant chat room for neighborhoods. Tens of millions of people use it across the country and around the world. Its mission statement conveys its high-minded goal: to provide a trusted platform where neighbors work together to build stronger, safer, healthier communities.
But at the time, Nextdoor was struggling with its “crime and safety” category. There were too many posts with racist overtones, messages that labeled blacks and Latinos as “suspicious” for walking down a street, sitting in a car, talking on a cell phone, or knocking on a door.
The Nextdoor team began digging through the research on how to deal with bias, searching for techniques that would preserve users’ freedom to flag danger when they see it, but protect people from being unfairly targeted. Leary found possible solutions in studies that show how bias is most likely to surface in situations when we’re moving fast.
To curb racial profiling on the platform, they had to contemplate slowing people down. That meant adding steps to the process of posting about “suspicious people,” but not making things so cumbersome that users dropped out. They needed something that would force people to look past the broad category of race, and think about specific characteristics.
So they developed a checklist of three reminders that people have to click through before they can post under the banner of “suspicious person”:
- 1.Focus on behavior. What was the person doing that concerned you, and how does it relate to a possible crime?
- 2.Give a full description, including clothing, to distinguish between similar people. Consider unintended consequences if the description is so vague that an innocent person could be targeted.
- 3.Don’t assume criminality based on someone’s race or ethnicity. Racial profiling is expressly prohibited.
Adding friction to the process slowed things down a bit, but it did not lead to the huge drop-off in users that industry observers had predicted. What it did do was reduce the incidence of racial profiling. Nextdoor’s tracking suggests that it is down by more than 75%. They’ve even adapted the process for international use, with customized filters for European countries.
The beauty of Nextdoor’s template is that it catches people before they’ve done anything wrong—the tool gets users to stop and think before they post something that will land them in heated arguments with neighbors. Because once the comment is out there, it’s hard to dial things back.
Ultimately, living with diversity means getting comfortable with people who might not always think like you, who don’t have the same experience or perspectives. That process can be challenging, but it might also be an opportunity to expand your horizons and examine your own buried bias.
The Power of Context
In 1967, Bernice Donald was one of four black girls enrolled at the previously all-white Olive Branch High School in Mississippi. School segregation had been ruled unconstitutional, but the white students had no intention of accepting blacks as peers. They called the black girls ugly names, and refused to associate with them. Some of her teachers were dismissive, and one was downright hostile. But at the end of that first year, Bernice’s grades were so stellar that she became the first black student admitted to the Honor Society at Olive Branch High.
Her experience confirms what decades of research have shown. Both black and Latino students do better academically when they attend integrated schools, and white students’ academic performance doesn’t suffer when their classmates are black and brown.
But what’s harder to quantify are the social consequences of the sort that Bernice endured. Proponents of school desegregation in the 1950s and 1960s presumed that close personal contact among children of different ethnic groups would make their families and communities more tolerant, and ultimately improve race relations.
But this theory ran into unexpected hurdles. As it turns out, simply sitting in the same classroom together isn’t enough to remedy time-worn prejudices. The benefits of interracial contact are conditional—as social psychologist Gordon Allport outlined in his 1954 classic, The Nature of Prejudice, contact has a much greater chance of piercing bias when the interactions meet a long list of conditions, including that the contact is between people of equal status, is condoned by authorities, and is personal rather than superficial.
Allport found that contact can exacerbate instead of ameliorate conflict, especially if the contact situations involve competition, or create anxiety for those who take part. The encounters need to be long and frequent enough that the groups involved are comfortable with one another, and feel they have common goals or bonds. That’s what helps dissolve the separation created by out-group distinctions.
And that’s what ultimately paved the way to acceptance for Bernice. In her senior year of high school, the Honor Society planned a trip to New York City. Because Bernice was an honors student, she was invited along. She was nervous about going—she’d never been away from home before, and was anxious to be on a trip with a group of hostile white students.
Despite this, Bernice made the trip. She walked around Manhattan with the group, excited to be in the mix. Like the rest of her southern troupe, she was wired for hospitality. But when the teenagers tried smiling and speaking to strangers, their greetings went unreturned. Bernice told Eberhardt, “We’d be walking down the streets of Manhattan, looking at the New Yorkers, going, ‘Hello, hello!’ And they would look at us as if we were Martians. They just kept walking.”
Suddenly, Bernice and her classmates were all outsiders, demoted collectively in Manhattan to second-class status. That experience was a turning point. She said, “It caused us to focus on what we had in common, more so than how we were different.”
Bernice didn’t know it then, but she was experiencing the power of context to weaken bias. When we’re faced with a common enemy, research has shown that our biases can temporarily dissolve due to the urge to band together and survive.
The Risks of Color Blindness
One of the most common practices schools foster is the strategy of color blindness: Try not to notice color. Try not to think about color. If you don’t allow yourself to think about race, you can never be biased.
That may sound like a fine ideal, but it’s unsupported by science, and difficult to accomplish. Our brains, our culture, and our instincts all lead us to use color as a sorting tool. And yet the color-blind message is so esteemed in American society that even our children pick up the idea that noticing skin color is rude. By the age of ten, children tend to refrain from discussing race, even in situations where mentioning race would be useful, like trying to describe the only black person in a group.
When we’re afraid, unwilling, or ill-equipped to talk about race, we leave young people to their own devices to make sense of the conflicts and disparities they see. In fact, the color-blind approach has consequences that can actually impede our move toward equality. When people focus on not seeing color, they may also fail to see discrimination.
In a study led by social psychologists Evan Apfelbaum and Nalini Ambady, that idea was put to the test. The researchers exposed sixty mostly white fourth- and fifth-grade students from a public school in Boston to a videotaped message promoting racial equality. For some of the children, color blindness was encouraged: “We all have to work hard to support racial equality,” the message said. “That means we need to focus on how we are similar to our neighbors, rather than how we are different. We want to show everyone that race is not important, and that we are all the same.”
For the remaining children, valuing diversity was encouraged: “We all have to work hard to support racial equality. That means we need to recognize how we are all different from our neighbors, and appreciate those differences. We want to show everyone that race is important, because our racial differences make each of us special.”
Next, all of the children listened to stories about incidents that involved other children. Some had clear racial components, like the story of a black child being intentionally tripped by another child while playing soccer, simply because he was black. Even in a situation like that, only 50% of those in the color-blind mindset identified the action as discriminatory. In the diversity-minded group, nearly 80% saw discrimination as a factor.
Color blindness promoted exactly the opposite of what was intended. It left minority children to fend for themselves in an environment where the harms they endured could no longer be seen.
We all have the capacity to make change—within ourselves, in the world, and in our relationship to that world. Eberhardt’s son Everett is now a teenager. Just this past summer, he was on Stanford’s campus, riding his bike home from the gym, when he came upon a young Asian woman jogging toward him along the same wide path. When she looked up and saw him, she veered off the path. And that simple gesture got Everett’s attention.
When he later discussed the encounter with his mother, Everett said, “It made me more self-conscious about my actions, and how I come off to other people. It made me sad too, kind of.”
It made Eberhardt sad, too. Whether on a high-crime street in Oakland or in a leafy green neighborhood on the edge of Stanford’s campus, her son now has to manage how he is seen. He has to grow accustomed to the fact that people may experience fear at the sheer sight of him.
This is her same son who, when he was five, had casually presumed the lone black male passenger on their plane might be a dangerous robber. He doesn’t even remember that, but now, eleven years later, he is becoming the target of his own perceptions.
The shift in that jogger’s trajectory led Everett and Eberhardt down a track that neither of us wanted to be on. And it surfaced our own fears about what lay ahead.
I thought about those middle-aged Chinese women in Oakland who became fearful of the young black men who might snatch their purses—young men they couldn’t tell from one another. Eberhardt’s son had now joined that broad demographic that ignites the primal fears that fuel implicit bias.
But with new appreciation, Eberhardt also recognized that the capacity for growth comes from our willingness to reflect, to probe in search of some actionable truth. So many people among us are probing, reaching, searching to do good and to be good in the best way they know how. And there is hope in the sheer act of reflection—that is where the power lies, and how the process starts.
Eberhardt’s son, in his own way, is discovering that. At the end of their talk about why the jogger avoided him, Everett said, “I’m not really sure, but I think she maybe just got nervous.”
After the woman had passed, Everett looked back and noticed that she had returned to the path. He moved ahead with his journey, too. He kept pedaling, heading home to get ready for a new day.