Why Malcolm Gladwell thinks we're biased

February 20, 2009
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Last night, a few years after everyone else, I read Malcolm Gladwell's Blink. Somebody shamed me into reading it. I am so glad I did. The book, to re-cap for everyone else in the world who has read it, is about how our adaptive unconscious interacts with our conscious to make decisions: sometimes wisely, sometimes erroneously.

One example he gave was about the Implicit Association Test which measures our unconscious attitudes to race etc. Most people have an unconscious preference for white over black people. I decided to put myself to the test. Bear with me there is a broader political point coming.

I did the race test and it came out with the result that I have a moderate preference for white over black people. I'm not really surprised by this given the world in which we live. Before you hurl abuse at me, let me just say a couple of things for context....

Firstly, this test measures unconscious attitudes (which can be changed but only by deliberately managing the sense data that creeps into the on board computer.) Secondly, this is about the level of prejudice that Malcolm Gladwell himself had and he is half Jamaican. Indeed, more that 50 per cent of black people also have an unconscious preference for white over black people. It's the society we live in.

Now, Project Implicit which runs this test also did a test for McCain v Obama and race. I did this test also. Amazingly, the result this time is that I had a slight preference for black people over white people! (It's hardly worth reporting that I had moderate preference for Barack Obama over John McCain other than it was only moderate.)Gladwell explains in his book that by showing people images of Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela prior to them taking the test, the results change. That is exactly what happened!

And taking the test, I could feel my conscious wrestling with my unconscious to place positive terms next to black people on the first test and exactly the OPPOSITE on the second test- I was having to force myself to put positive words in the white box.

What does this mean in political and social terms? Well, it has to mean that as long as people continue to view Barack Obama positively then he will have some impact on the unconscious associations people make between race and particular characteristics. So will Barack Obama move America's race relations forward? Absolutely he will.

More broadly, it seems to me that these insights create other issues when it come to politics, society and culture. We need to be conscious of the unconscious stereotypes that we attribute to particular groups. We also need to be careful about using group specific terms in relation to particular negative traits. 'Islamic extremism' is a term that simply has to go. This is not political correctness, it is just that the term creates too much negativity and takes down too many innocent by-standers with it.

Finally, particular groups can benefit from these unconscious associations. Gladwell describes the 'Warren Harding error.' Harding was tall, handsome, charming, authoritative, everything anyone would wish to find in a president. He was elected. He was a disaster. It is grossly unjust. I have to confess though that the 'tall and dark' error is not something that I will be working particularly hard to correct...... [Editor's note: this post was originally posted at Anthony's blog. We are grateful to him for reposting it here.]