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Originally published Monday, February 11, 2013 at 5:00 AM

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‘Blindspot’ an eye-opening look at our unconscious biases

Seattle Times book editor

Author appearance

Anthony Greenwald

The author of “Blindspot” will discuss his book at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave. Advance tickets, $5, are available at 888-377-4510 or townhallseattle.org, or at the door beginning at 6:30 p.m.

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Lit Life

Almost everybody wants to be a good person, right? I’ve been working hard at it all my life, hoping the Brownie points were adding up. I’m guessing that most people reading these words feel the same.

But what if, lurking in the labrynthine twists and turns of your brain, a lot of very old and persistent biases are shaping the way you see people — without your knowledge? What if you’re giving an unconscious edge to people just like yourself, just because they look like you, talk like you, walk like you on the same sidewalks of life?

A pretty darn depressing thought, or that was my first response after reading University of Washington psychology professor Anthony Greenwald’snew book “Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People” (Delacorte, $27), co-authored with Harvard University professor Mazharin R. Banaji.

Greenwald is a much-decorated psychologist. He studied for his doctorate at Harvard under Gordon Allport, author of the pioneering 1954 book “The Nature of Prejudice.”

In the early 1990s, Greenwald and Banaji came up with something called the Implicit Association Test. They found that, when forced to make rapid choices on a list, it was much easier and quicker for people to sort things they had a pleasant association with (flowers and happy words like “heaven”) than unpleasant (insects and yucky words like “evil”).

They expanded the concept and soon, they were asking subjects to sort faces of various races (white, black, Hispanic, Asian) along with pleasant and unpleasant words (health, agony). They learned that in general, people’s unconscious associations make them faster at clumping white faces with pleasant words than black faces with pleasant words. “When two ideas and concepts are associated in our heads, it’s very easy to give the same response to things representing both of them,” says Greenwald.

The Implicit Association Test has now been expanded to measure people’s biases in areas of gender and age, among other things. To date, 14 million various versions of the test have been taken. Author Malcolm Gladwell, a best-selling author whose mother is Jamaican, was horrified to find, thanks to the Race IAT, that he had a moderate white bias. “It was this creepy, dispiriting, devastating moment,” he told Oprah Winfrey.

Greenwald’s book expands on some of the IAT’s results.

• Well over a majority of Americans express egalitarian beliefs, but white preference is pervasive in American society — 70 percent of those who take the Race IAT on the Internet or in a laboratory showed a stronger white-pleasant association. This trend persists, even among a large chunk of people who espouse earnestly egalitarian beliefs.

• Eighty percent of all Americans have a stronger young = good than old = good association. In one round of tests that included IATs, older people (60s to 80s) had “every bit as strong an automatic preference for young as did the 22-year-olds,” the authors write.

• In a gender-career IAT, 75 percent of all men display the automatic gender stereotype of male = work and female = family. Eighty percent of all women show the same stereotype.

By now you may be grumbling, “I don’t believe it.” See for yourself. Go to the website https://implicit.harvard
.edu/implicit/demo/
and take a test.

I did. Though I wasn’t entirely happy with the result, it explained some things. I recommend the exercise, paired with reading this book — perhaps the first step in lightening the burden is realizing just how heavy it is.

Mary Ann Gwinn:

206-464-2357 or mgwinn@seattletimes.com. Gwinn appears every Tuesday on TVW’s “Well Read,” discussing books with host Terry Tazioli

(go to www.tvw.org/shows/well-read for archived episodes). On Twitter @gwinnma.

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