The Cognitive Science of Moral Failure: Prejudice and Blink

Are you a racist?

Okay, that's probably too harsh a question. I'm just trying to get your attention. Let's ask something more subtle:

Are you prejudiced?

That is, do you have negative stereotypes about ethnic groups, gays, Muslims, genders or other groups?

Here's the deal. You can't really answer these questions.

The reason has to do with the cognitive systems we've been talking about in the last few posts. Prejudice and stereotypes are driven by System 1, the system that is fast, unconscious and automatic. This is also the system that is largely walled off from introspection. So when I ask you if you are prejudiced what you end up doing is searching System 2, the conscious repository of our values, morals and ideals. And when you consult that repository of course it tends to look like you are not prejudiced. That is, when you consult System 2 this is what you find:
I believe, given my values, that it is wrong to be prejudiced.
I have as a goal for myself not to be prejudiced.
I consciously try not to be prejudiced.
Note, however, none of this tells us if we actually are prejudiced. Values, goals and desires don't necessarily translate into action. How many of us value, desire and set goals for more healthy living? Think of those New Year resolutions. A moment of reflection reveals that not wanting to be prejudiced has little bearing upon actually being prejudiced.

The reason for this is simple. Introspection only penetrates System 2. But prejudice is produced by System 1. You're self-analyzing the wrong system.

But how could you ever analyze an unconscious system? You can't rely upon introspection. You need something that assesses our quick, automatic appraisals. The "blink" of Malcolm Gladwell's book. How do we assess blinks? Enter the Implicit Association Test (IAT).

The IAT was developed by Harvard psychologists to test for the strength of implicit (i.e., System 1) associations, good and bad, for different targeted stimuli. The first test assessed Good/Bad associations for race. Since then a whole host of tests are available for associations regarding obesity, old age, and religion. You can take one of these many tests by going to Project Implicit at the Harvard host site. Click on the link and take one of the tests.

If you take an IAT you see what it does. It assesses reaction time as you sort a target category (e.g., White faces vs. Black faces) along with an attribute (e.g., Good vs. Bad). What the test reveals in the racial version of the IAT is that, generally for white people, when "Good" attributes are paired with "White" faces our ability to classify is improved (assessed as mean reaction time over the repeated trials) relative to the trials when "Good" attributes are paired with "Black" faces. In other words, we find it easier to associate White/Good and Black/Bad relative to when we have White/Bad and Black/Good pairings. We implicitly associate whiteness with goodness and blackness with badness. You don't know you do this (again, introspection is no help) but the test reveals that, in fact, you do.  

(Incidentally, you probably noted that IAT works because of the Stroop Effect. That is, "good" when paired with white faces is easy while "good" paired with black faces creates the interference of the Stroop Effect.)

The IAT has important implications for spiritual and moral formation. Specifically, church people tend to lean too heavily upon introspection. Church people very often want to be good people which leads them to assume that they are good people. In short, too many Christians think they are good when, in fact, they are not. We call this hypocrisy.

And it's not a willful hypocrisy. Just a mindless one. A failure to understand that values, goals, and desires are not necessary and sufficient conditions for being a good person.  Once again, the fissure between the two cognitive systems has risen up and bitten us.

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8 thoughts on “The Cognitive Science of Moral Failure: Prejudice and Blink”

  1. Your point about this being a mindless hypocrisy is important, and it has caused some debate about proper terminology among psychological scientists. Many disagree that IAT scores show "prejudice" because the person does not intend to be racist. They prefer the term "implicit preference" because it's less loaded.

    Others use the term "aversive racism" to label the situation you describe, where one has outwardly egalitarian attitudes but harbours negative implicit attitudes. As you noted, these are the people who run into System 1/System 2 conflicts.

    And believe me--there are *lots* of situations (e.g., if one is tired or distracted) when implicit biases are what drive behaviour, leading to discrimination.

  2. I believe that we have used the word prejuidice, as we have with tolerance, in nebulous ways. The "ideal" is correct, but the "real" world is filled with discrimination and with right reason in certain instances, say for instance, scholarships or jobs.

    People must discriminate to make evaluations. We have dismissed the "critical" in light of the "moral high road" to nebulous thinking.

    I wonder if someone has grown up in a "dysfunctional role" (family systems), if this affects how they understand themselves in relation to the rest of their life, and not just their family role? These being motivated by false guilt, or over-responsiblity (co-dependent behavior and thinking) always can be manipulated by those whose family rolers were more "empowered" ( "the hero")....

  3. I did the IAT for race, and I'm disappointed. Through introspection, I admit that I am prejudiced. It doesn't take a brain child to know that I'm not living up to my standard, and that I justify that in my daily thoughts and actions. However, the IAT is biased to produce these results in two ways.

    1. It has the person do "white-good" and "black-bad" first, which trains the fingers how to respond and then it backfires when the respondent tries to switch later. I kept putting bad with black even after the switch had been made.

    2. It allowed for introspection at the end of the test. I could have totally lied about that, using the system 2, and then what of the results?

    I don't have a phd, so maybe I'm the one who is bogus, but this one bothered me.

  4. Dan,

    Supposedly they counterbalance for that kind of thing, so that for half of the people it's the other way around (i.e., starting with white-bad). There are also a number of trial blocks in the test and only some are used, so you get used to the other way around before it "counts" toward your score.

    The IAT is a great tool for psychological research but it's a little controversial that they are willing to provide people with individual feedback, given that it's a sensitive area (i.e., prejudice) and most measures like this aren't meant to diagnose individuals, only groups of individuals. As you said, little things like the order of presentation might affect an individual's score. In the long run, over a large number of people, these random factors would even out and not be a problem but in the case of individual scores there is a greater margin of error.

    On the other hand, few would volunteer to do the task online if they didn't provide some sort of feedback so maybe it's a greater good, for the sake of science.

    (I have done some grad work in this area, if it makes a difference.)

  5. Richard,

    It seems that System 1 isn't impervious to change and learning. The names of the colors in the visual dipicting the Stroop effect, for instance, were learned. Can't we unlearn bad associations? Make habit our friend over time by training System 1 to "behave?" (Yea, I'm just giving voice to James' 120 year old chapter from The principles.)


  6. Dan & Kurt,
    Dan, I agree with everything Kurt said. My blog post doesn't do justice to the very large literature on the IAT and its interpreation. Thanks Kurt for weighing in.

    You're exactly right. I think habit formation is THE way to deal with System 1. James's essay on habit is one of the best things ever written in psychology with huge implications for spiritual formation.

    Trouble is, in today's age, habit formation is too much work and too slow. People want quicker fixes. Drive through virtue. The McDonaldification of character. 5 Easy Steps to a Better Life and a Better You.

  7. Dan,
    One more thing. I come out prejudiced on the IAT as well. And I consider myself the moral standard for all humanity.

    Even black people show associations aligning black with bad. They soak in the culture just like whites do. White is good, clean and pure and black is sinful, tainted and evil.

    The value of the IAT, to my mind, is that it makes me much more intentional about myself. Whenever I'm dealing with people I consciously remind myself: You got biases and stereotypes, pay attention to those, listen to this person as a person. (And that's really my take home point: Pay attention to yourself. Don't think you're immune to moral lapses.)

    I tell my students this all the time: The person who scares me the most is the person who says they are not prejudiced.

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