Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People
Mahzarin R. Banaji Anthony G. Greenwald
Delacorte Press, 2013 ($27)

When journalist Brent Staples walks down the street, he whistles classical music. Staples, who is African-American, does not do this to share his love of Mozart. Rather he wants to ease the fears of white pedestrians who might not realize how nervous they feel when passing a black man.

As psychologists Banaji and Greenwald discuss in Blindspot, Staples is attempting to counteract unconscious bias. Our social and cultural surroundings influence these attitudes in ways we may not notice. They argue that forming implicit biases is an innate, often helpful, ability that allows us to distinguish friend from foe and to find our place in a complex social world. Psychologists study this phenomenon using tests that force us to make rapid associations. The speed with which we connect words from two categories, such as “good” and “thin” or “good” and “fat,” reveals our underlying preferences. One study showed, surprisingly, that ambitious, professional women often prefer a male boss, for instance, and another found that people who proclaim the earth is flat unconsciously accept that it is round.

Implicit biases influence our behavior in complex and often subtle ways. A doctor may inadvertently give a patient special treatment because the patient is a professor at Yale. Or a white philanthropist who sees himself as open-minded may still contribute to racial inequality by donating to charities that primarily support white people.

The book's main shortcoming is the absence of nuanced brain-based explanations for how implicit biases form. The authors only briefly describe how the same neural networks become active in our brain's decision-making center when we consider our own actions and those of individuals similar to ourselves. In addition, they—unwilling to impose values on their readers—offer minimal advice to head off implicit racism or sexism.

Despite these gaps, Blindspot successfully reveals how our unconscious minds influence our beliefs and behaviors and remind us to think twice about our instinctive reactions and to acknowledge how bias might creep into our lives.