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Study on how people unlearn their biases

I’m not sure what to make of this, other than the study reinforces the idea that no matter what the cause of bias is, it is clearly something that can be overcome — if the person wants to.

Shedding the fears that we acquire about people of other races is as difficult as shaking our fear of spiders and snakes, researchers say. But personal contact with someone of another race helps ease those fears.

Psychologists at Harvard and New York University conditioned more than 70 NYU students to associate images of black and white men with a mildly uncomfortable electric shock.

When the students were repeatedly shown the same images without the shocks, their fears of the other racial group remained as deep-seated as those of a group conditioned to fear spiders and snakes.

The fear of the other race registered whether the test subjects were white or black. But the fears disappeared more quickly among participants who had dated across racial lines, the researchers say.

“What it says is, there’s no question that there’s a benefit to having positive contact with people of different races,” said Mahzarin Banaji, a Harvard psychology professor and co-author of the study, published in the journal Science.

Studies as far back as the 1970s show that people have an easier time recognizing faces from their own racial groups. Known as the same-race advantage, it occurs more consistently among whites than blacks, particularly among whites who have little contact with blacks.

It could be that in this country at least, black people have more contact with whites than whites have with blacks,” said Laura Thomas, a researcher at the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Duke University.

Bingo. The difference is that blacks and other racial minorities must engage with the dominant culture to survive. By and large, whites tend to self-segregate — thus the Sundown Town phenomenon. The problem is compounded when the minorities also choose to self-segregate.

I had a strange, sad encounter with this on our last trip to Birmingham. Katie and I stopped in McD’s for some tea one AM, and Kate noted that we got some interesting looks when we came in together and ordered. The all-black staff behind the counter looked at us strangely, which I really didn’t take note of — Kate did. She had told me before that despite all the civil rights struggles, blacks and whites really don’t socialize. We asked for confirmation of this with a cousin, who said this is definitely the case. Interracial dating is still a big problem in most social circles of any kind in Birmingham.

The authors of the Science study say their work shows that we’re reluctant to change what we’ve learned about people who look different. “It’s not about race, so much as about social groups that you tend to label as yours and not yours. We’re less willing to incorporate new information about people from a different social group,” said Elizabeth Phelps, a cognitive neuroscientist at NYU.

Phelps said the study goes a step further than previous work by documenting for the first time whether we can “unlearn” fear. She said that by recognizing such fears, people may be more willing to address them and become more sensitive to the hostilities faced by various groups, such as Arab Muslims here after the Sept. 11 attacks.

She finds it encouraging that the fear disappeared more quickly among students who had dated across racial lines. Some 50 percent of the black NYU students had dated someone of the other race and about 25 percent of the white students had cross-dated, Phelps said.

“It’s naive to say that we don’t have these biases,” she said. “But it’s nice to know they can be changed by social contact.”

I think this study supports common sense — lack of exposure to people of a different “race” clearly makes it more difficult to be comfortable interacting with them, let alone dating them. Repeated social contact and conversation, people. It’s that simple.

The study seems to ignore some obvious realities, though. I would imagine that you could find a significant number of black/minorities that would also have a negative reaction to the minority face as well, if you factor in cultural conditioning everyone is exposed to (the seemingly endless perp walk of blacks and hispanics on the TV news).

This was illustrated well in psychologist Dr. Kenneth Clark‘s “doll test”, which was used in a SC lawsuit, Briggs v. Elliott. It played a pivotal role in the famous Brown v. Board of Education case, which ended legal segregation in the nation’s schools.

Dr. Clark questioned sixteen Clarendon County African-American elementary school children between the ages of six and nine. Clark used the dolls during his examination of these students, all of whom attended Scott’s Branch Elementary, a school named in the case.

When asked to choose the brown doll, the white doll, or no doll at all, ten of the sixteen students selected the white doll as the “nice” doll. Eleven labeled the brown doll as the “bad” doll. Even though the children had demonstrated that they could distinguish between the white and brown dolls, when asked to choose which doll looked like them, seven selected the white doll.

…The Scott’s Branch children reacted similarly to other children the Clarks had studied, and like other African American children, several chose to portray themselves as white. According to Clark, this happened because “the pressures which these children sensed against being brown forced them to evade reality.” Clark testified that his research illustrated the detrimental effects of prejudice, segregation, and discrimination on personality development

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding