How Do We Understand Our Quirky, Unconscious Reactions to Trayvon Martin?

We are in need of tools to help us truly examine our own attitudes. 

An introspective Barack Obama asked the country last week to do some "soul-searching" about the issue of race following the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. 


Soul-searching, according to a common definition, is a "penetrating examination of one's motives, convictions, and attitudes." 

Are we capable of this?

Psychology tells us we are irrational thinkers who are largely unaware of our unconscious biases. When it comes to an explosive issue like race, soul-searching is certainly much easier said than done.

And so if we hope to have a constructive national dialogue on race, we need tools to help us examine our own attitudes. Moreover, looking inwardly will only go so far. We need to understand race as a sociological problem as well. In other words, why does society treat racial and ethnic groups differently?

Fortunately, President Obama didn't just leave it at soul-searching. The President provided "context," as he put it, to the way the African-American community has reacted to the killing of Martin. The context, in this case, is the widespread perception that all black males are criminals. For instance, Obama pointed to his own experiences of being followed around stores while shopping, experiences that continued to happen to him until he became a U.S. Senator.

It was a deeply personal reminder that stereotypes, particularly the most pernicious ones, cause injury, embarrassment, or much worse. Most people consciously reject stereotypes. After all, we are moral creatures. But our subconscious doesn't give a damn. 

The subconscious crunches data, but it often spits out conclusions that don't vie with reality, since these conclusions are not based on fact, but bias. 

Consider our perceptions of the criminal justice system. These facts, from the advocacy group, The Sentencing Project, show us in great detail how blacks and whites are treated differently by the criminal justice system. And yet, our perceptions of this inequality suggest that the black and white communities are living on different planets. 

It is not until we acknowledge the psychological and sociological factors that account for this difference in perception that we might be able to move on to the soul-searching portion of this exercise. 

As Yale professor Paul Bloom points out in his Floating University lecture, part of being a successful human comes down to making generalizations "on the basis of limited experience." In other words, there is nothing inherently wrong with stereotypes. However, the really ugly ones, Bloom argues, tend to be based on biased information.

In the video below, Bloom addresses racist stereotypes and how he says we can diminish the role of unconscious bias.

Watch the video here:

To show how to minimize our unconscious biases, Bloom points to one example, which involves sex, not race.

Until recently women were deeply underrepresented in symphony orchestras. The reason for this, our unconscious bias might tell us, is that women are simply not as good musicians as men. However, when blind auditions - in which a candidate for an orchestra played behind a screen - were introduced, the representation of women in symphony orchestras shot up. 

As Bloom argues, the problem had not been that the judges were consciously sexist. They simply couldn't help themselves from subconsciously hearing a woman play differently than a man. 

Bloom says this is one shining example of how we can manipulate the world so that "our better selves get to make the decisions."

See Paul Bloom's full lecture, "The Psychology of Everything," here

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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