There is something particularly disquieting about this brand of bias, because there is a power asymmetry. The unconscious screener shapes what the conscious “you” gets to see, but the conscious “you” doesn’t have veto power over that decision. Of course, you could try to shift your attention or change your goals once you are aware of them, but by then it may be too late. The unconscious always has a head start.
Personal contact between people of different races has always been seen as a powerful way to reduce prejudice. As the world becomes increasingly multicultural and globalized, these unconscious blinders might make us immune to that diversity. We cannot get to know or learn from people if we look right through them. The modern world might magnify these effects in a second way, because the power of the unconscious is greatest when our attention is under the heaviest demands. In today’s multitasking world, when we split our attention between Facebook and real friends, between our kindles and our kids, between our laptops and our loved ones, we delegate ever more to the unconscious. It makes you wonder who you have looked at today and have not seen.
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and regular contributor to NewYorker.com. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.