“The Unseen mind”

When we think about implicit biases (see here), it might be worth realizing how their existence fits into a fairly new (or rediscovered) and interesting view of the mind.  This view is probably familiar to lots of our readers, but the references might be useful, and reminding ourselves of it might be helpful when we think about how to get people to entertain the idea that their actions are biased.

  One way to start thinking about the view is to look at a pretty amazing story that got a lot of attention in the US last year (from Buckley, Cara. 2007. Man Is Rescued by Stranger on Subway Tracks. The New York Times, Jan. 3, 1) :

Autrey and his daughters
Autrey and his daughters

Mr. Autrey was waiting for the downtown local at 137th Street and Broadway in Manhattan around 12:45 p.m. He was taking his two daughters, Syshe, 4, and Shuqui, 6, home before work.  Nearby, a man collapsed, his body convulsing. Mr. Autrey and two women rushed to help, he said. The man, Cameron Hollopeter, 20, managed to get up, but then stumbled to the platform edge and fell to the tracks, between the two rails.

The headlights of the No. 1 train appeared. “I had to make a split decision,” Mr. Autrey said.

So he made one, and leapt.

Mr. Autrey lay on Mr. Hollopeter, his heart pounding, pressing him down in a space roughly a foot deep…

….“I don’t feel like I did something spectacular; I just saw someone who needed help,” Mr. Autrey said. “I did what I felt was right.”

We’re used to the idea that we can do some things pretty automatically:  tying show laces, brushing teeth and clearing  one’s throat might be examples.  But as this example illustrates, there’s a lot going on that results in adjusting one’s body to a very complex environment and we can do it with little or no conscious thought.  Autrey had to get himself on that  track and fold his body over the other’s exceptionally quickly and he simply couldn’t have spent time figuring out how to do it.

Such actions can be novel ones we haven’t done before.  Autrey’s unusual action may in fact be in part the product of his military training, which enabled him to act ‘single mindedly,’ without regard to the consequences for himself or the children he left on the platform.  (Soldiers who fall on a grenade to protect others may be acting similarly.)  For many of us, our actions tend to be congruent with a wider range of our other goals.  For example, walking on a busy sidewalk, one’s actions will be sensitive to a number of one’s goals and values additional to getting to a certain destination.  But slowing down before you run into someone is something many of us will or can do without any conscious thought.

How in the world do we produce such complicated and nuanced actions so quickly?  Certainly not by consciously thinking them through and calculating our every move.  Rather,

The human mind operates largely out of view of its owners, possibly because that’s the way it evolved to work initially, and because that’s the way it works best, under many circumstances. Without such an efficient, powerful, and fast means of understanding and acting on the world, it would be difficult to survive. We would be stuck pondering every little decision, such as whether to put our left or right foot forward first, as the world sped by.

(from Wilson, Timothy D., and Yoav Bar-Anan. 2008. PSYCHOLOGY: The Unseen Mind. Science 321 (5892):1046-1047).

From this point of view, having implicit biases is not like having a dark stain on one’s soul and it does not mean that somehow one is unusually clueless.  Rather, it is just one of many quick and unconscious ways one copes with a very complex world.  What makes them a concern are their effects. 

Another thing that we can see is the role of speed in these mechanisms; they have to affect us very quickly.  That is probably one reason that the implicit attitude test has a lot to do with timing.

Relatedly, a friend was remarking recently about how silly it is for male graduate students on the job market to worry about whether or not to wear a suit, or how to find the right tie, since that  sort of thing doesn’t affect the interview.  Is that true?  Maybe, but also maybe not.  It is not out of the realm of psychological possibility that a significant number of interviewers have a pro- or an anti-suit implicit bias.  And if so, they won’t be thinking consciously about it at all.