Here’s Some Controversy For You


Check out this Washington Post article from yesterday (I think you have to register, but it’s free). It’s about social psychologists who study bias, and the findings of a new study that purports to show that biases influence political views.

Whew, doggie.

I encountered this topic and researched it in more detail than the average bear last summer when I was preparing to second-chair a deposition of an expert witness for a company my law firm is suing. It’s a race-discrimination case involving claims about compensation and promotions. The thing about all employment discrimination cases these days is that they’re murky. There are no blanket exclusion policies anymore, and there usually are no smoking guns (i.e., written documentation that a person was fired, not promoted, or not hired because of a forbidden characteristic like race or sex). So we rely on social scientists who analyze the “social framework” of a workplace and elucidate how discrimination can come into play, often because of what we call “excessive discretion” and “subjective decisionmaking.” This is necessarily overly simplified, but suffice it to say that discrimination is largely unacknowledged and even unconscious on the part of decisionmakers.

Dr. Philip Tetlock, a professor at the Haas Business School at Berkeley, was hired as the expert for the other side in this case. He has made part of his career (he’s too prolific for me to say all) out of trying to maintain the classical definition of prejudice — hatred, malice, conscious bias — and arguing against fellow social psychologists who have done extensive work on how the nature of racial prejudice has changed in the late 20th century because the public mores about acceptable levels of prejudice have changed. Tetlock particularly hates the test discussed in this article — the Implicit Association Test — for various reasons too complicated to delve into here. And he even more particularly hates the proposition, which the test purports to show here, that, not to put too fine a point on it, Republicans are more likely to be racists than Democrats.

I’m agnostic on the scientific merit of the Implicit Association Test and on what the relationship is between racial prejudice and being a Republican. I’m interested to hear others’ thoughts on this issue. Go forth and engage!


11 Responses to “Here’s Some Controversy For You”

  1. Michael Lasley Says:

    It will be interesting to see how this research is received when it is officially published. Besides attacking the legitimacy of the claims in the research, I’m sure there will be some justifications along the lines of what subjects did when inconsistencies in “their” candidate’s speaches — giving themselves pats on the back, psychologically speaking.

    To me, the best part of the article addressed both Dems and Reps: “The analysis found that substantial majorities of Americans, liberals and conservatives, found it more difficult to associate black faces with positive concepts than white faces — evidence of implicit bias.”

    How do we learn to fight our own implicit prejudices?

  2. Whitney Says:

    How do we learn to fight our own implicit biases?

    Good question.

    I was first faced with the idea of racial discrimination as a psychological (vice social)construct as an undergrad studying stereotype threat and its relationship to intelligence test scores. (I actually studied and met some of the people I’m sure are being argued against in the article.)

    What was most interesting to me was that race was not a deciding factor in who showed bias. Blacks were biases against blacks. Interesing isn’t it? I wonder how our society perpetuates this idea that people are somehow lesser people (be it in terms of intellect, values, morals, etc.) because of their race. And what’s even more troubling is that on a sub- or unconscious level, minorities have, for lack of a better term, bought in to the idea that they are inferior. That’s so hard for me to comprehend. I find this to be extremely sad and a poor reflection on how far our society has really come in the struggle for equal rights…how about equal confidence?

    Sandi, it’s no surprise to me that overall Republicans express more racial bias than Democrats. Unfortunate, but true. Now I know a lot of Republicans who are not overtly biased. I know others who are. I cannot begin to explain why. (Well, I could, but…..I won’t.)

    I was raised in the South; I saw bias everywhere. I lived in Mississippi for a while where they huddled together on the street corner waving the Confederate flag. It made me sick and angry. But it was evident and overt and you knew exactly where people stood.

    It’s the covert/implicit biases, however that are so interesting.Implicit associations are powerful things. I wonder how we all would fare on the IAT; I don’t know if I want to know.

    As far as the Implicit Association Test, I am somewhat familiar with it. I’m just responding to the initial post and to Mikey’s statement. Tomorrow I hope to have time to read the article and have further comment. This kind of stuff is right up my psychological alley. I’m just rambling now, but that is probably a result of 1) it is late; 2) I did our taxes today and my brain is fried; and 3) I just got home from my Tues night class and don’t know if my students think I’m cool or crazy. I’d settle on crazy.

    Sandi, thanks for an interesting post. I’m interested to hear how you all think about our implicit biases. Do you deny that you have them or do you acknowledge it and battle them?

  3. DocWatson Says:

    Bias is tough nut to crack. Those of us that say we have no bias at all would probable be surprised at our results if we were to take the test. I grew up is a town that was virtually one race. Almost everyone that I was around would say that they have nothing against a particular race, but when they reach deep into their inner thoughts they might be scared to find out that they are biased against certain individuals. The overwhelming bias that exist in my town now is against the poor. There is a great divide here between the rich and the poverty stricken. I do not see that going away anytime soon.

    I read the Washington Post everyday. I love the slant they give to the news. I would be interested to know if they would have published these results if the results would have said that people that voted against Bush were more inclined to harbor anti-black prejudices.

  4. Whitney Says:

    OK; I’m back. Ironically enough, I’ve read the piece and it is, indeed, biased.

    If you want to take the IAT, here is the link:

    I don’tknow how to post links, so it would be great if someone were kind enough to correct this.

    I was actually a participant in the IAT research several years ago (something grad students doing research do for good karma.) I have a huge problem with practice effects in the IAT. The brain is extrememely powerful in terms of practice; we learn very quickly and is much harder to extinct a learned behavior (especially a simple tast like the IAT) than it is to learn it in the first place. I know IAT researchers say they’ve controlled for order effects, but I don’t know if their controls are strong enough. Enough of that…I could go on and on.

    Now to the article and its bias. First I want to say that I mostly agree with what the article is saying and cannot judge the research before I’ve seen the exact methodology used along with the data and statistical results. There are no r-square or p-values, which in turn means the results have little value until those are known. Also, with 13,000 participants, a correlation as low as .10 can be significant (statistically speaking) but otherwise meaningless. The more data you have, the less you attribute your findings to chance, but you get to a point where all of your results become statistically significant and this is just as bad as if none of them are. It tells you absolutely nothing.

    Second, we know nothing about methodology. Did the researchers control for potentially spurious variables to ensure the correlation was true? Or is the correlation simply an artifact such that, when all necessaray variables are controlled, the correlation goes away? I don’t know; this is a conference piece, not a published journal article, so I haven’t been able to pull it up on my trusty APA search engine and read it.

    There is one quote from the article, the very last one, that was just absurd. (Keep in mind I do understand my own biases are playing in here, suppose they hook me up to the brain scan while I type this…)

    “If anyone in Washington is skeptical about these findings, they are in denial,” he said. “We have 50 years of evidence that racial prejudice predicts voting. Republicans are supported by whites with prejudice against blacks. If people say, ‘This takes me aback,’ they are ignoring a huge volume of research.”

    First: “We have 50 years of evidence that racial prejudice predicts voting.”

    Well, ice cream sales also predict number of drownings, but this does not mean they cause them. (Both occur more in the summer months.) Prediction means relatively little without statistical context. Prediction is never grounds for causation, and it is bothersome to me that a scientists would frame it as such.

    But this: “Republicans are supported by whites with prejudice against blacks,” is what just annoyed me to pieces.

    It makes it sound like to be a Republican or to support a Republican, you automatically must have a prejudice against blacks. We all know the idiocy of that statement. I do not doubt there are many supporters of Republicans who are prejudcice against blacks, just as I do not doubt there are supporters of Democrats who hold the same prejudice. There needs to be a qualifier word in there: “Some,” but to phrase it as a catch-all, from a scientist, no less, is irresponsible.

    Lastly, as I was thinking about the black/white race issue and politics. It occurred to me that the only black lawmakers I could think of right off hand were Republican. And I mean legitimate authorities, not those guys who run for president every single opportunity to have their voices heard. Those I thought of: J.C. Watts (former Senator from OK; I likely did not think of him b/c he was a Rep. but more likely b/c he’s from OK and I have a friend who worked for him), Condi, Colin Powell, Clarence Thomas. The last three are/were high-profile, legitimate authority figures in our nation. All appointed by a Repubican.

    OK, I know this is long. Sorry for that. If any of you take the IAT, let us know if you’re surprised with your results and if you think there are any practice effects that would’ve altered your responses.

  5. Joe Longhorn Says:

    Can’t fix your post, but I can post the .

  6. DeJon Redd Says:

    For what its worth and to stir the pot…

    Many times I’ve heard something along the lines of this logic:

    “On the whole Conservatives are usually prejudicial to minorities as a race, but not as individuals. Lberals tend to demonstrate the converse – A prejudice individually more so than as a race.”

    Has any one else hear this or subscribe to this opinion?

  7. Al Sturgeon Says:

    DeJon: I haven’t heard of that, but its an interesting pot-stirring thought!

    I took the test without studying. I was told that I have a “moderate” preference to white over black, etc. How I really feel is that I have a “strong” bias against psychological tests. There, I said it…. (it feels good to get it out!)

    I’m being serious about that, however. I’m sure there’s usefulness to some of them, but there’s never been much usefulness to me.

    Like DocWatson, I grew up in a homoracial environment. (I love making up new words!) In spite of that, I really don’t feel racism is on the short list of my personal problems.

    What do you guys think about this?

    NEW YORK – Morgan Freeman says the concept of a month dedicated to black history is “ridiculous.”

    “You’re going to relegate my history to a month?” the 68-year-old actor says in an interview on CBS’ “60 Minutes” to air Sunday (7 p.m. EST). “I don’t want a black history month. Black history is American history.”

    Freeman notes there is no “white history month,” and says the only way to get rid of racism is to “stop talking about it.”

    The actor says he believes the labels “black” and “white” are an obstacle to beating racism.

    “I am going to stop calling you a white man and I’m going to ask you to stop calling me a black man,” Freeman says.

  8. Sandi Says:

    Interesting discussion … very glad to get your perspective as a social scientist, Whitney.

    When I was in college, the “drinks around the pool” wisdom about Republicans were that they were either racist or obsessed with “keeping their money” (i.e. not paying taxes). Particularly in the South, my understanding is that many political scientists and social psychologists believe that, at an aggregate level at least, racism is a major cause for the rise of the Republican party. Personally, I think gender plays at least as large a role. (But you knew I would say that!)

    As for biases, I absolutely believe that we all have them. Of course people of color are biased against their own race. Women are sexist, gays are homophobic … when you grow up in a prejudiced culture, you inevitably internalize those prejudices. It is incredibly sad, but not really surprising.

    I get onto anyone, of any political stripe, who declares herself or himself free of latent bias. I think the only way to deal with these biases is to make them conscious and go from there. So, when you see a black man walking down the street and you instinctively reach over and lock your car door, realize what you’re doing and hold yourself accountable (in whatever way seems logical to you). Absolutely no one in this culture is completely non-racist, although there are of course degrees. I hate it when anyone, progressive or conservative, tries to declare themself the exception.

    After studying it a bit in preparation for the deposition, I was persuaded that the IAT has flaws inasmuch as it purports to measure the level of someone’s prejudices. I look at it as kind of a fun thing to do when you’re goofing off at work (I’ve taken tons of different versions) rather than what its creators wanted it to be, a scientific way to measure bias.

    The deeper problem, which I alluded to in my post, is that there is disagreement over the very meaning of the concept of bias. Some folks, like Professor Tetlock, don’t accept that anything short of conscious hatred or ill feeling is bias and can cause discriminatory behavior. Since most discrimination is no longer caused by conscious racism, this is problematic.

  9. Whitney Says:

    Al said: “I took the test without studying. I was told that I have a “moderate” preference to white over black, etc. How I really feel is that I have a “strong” bias against psychological tests. There, I said it…. (it feels good to get it out!)

    I’m being serious about that, however. I’m sure there’s usefulness to some of them, but there’s never been much usefulness to me.

    Al, it’s unfortunate that you feel this way, but I can certainly understand where it comes from. Keep in mind that there are many legitimate, valid, reliable psychological tests out there that are used for so many good purposes. We have tests that help identify specific educational needs, tests that help identify potential problems in certain social situations and help prevent them, and tests that help identify potential threats to our national security so we can weed those people out of the process early on. These are just the few off the top of my had that I know have merit and were written and released with nothing but good intentions.

    Unfortunately, the mainstream American has access to a bunch of, in scientific terms, psychological phooey. 🙂

    Tests such as the IAT that make it to the pop culture never really held much merit in my mind, either. Like Sandi said, they’re fun to play with in your downtime, but you shouldn’t take them too seriously. I’ve never trusted psychologists who aim to develop tests that will be popular. It seems more like a money game than an honest attempt to help people. (The commercials for e-Harmony really get under my skin.)

    Unfortunately, these relatively few cases have an impact on my profession as a whole, and what happens is that people end up not taking us seriously as scientists. I can certainly understand why psychology as a field is met with resistance and skepticism. But we’re not all like that! Really!

    By the way, I had a “slight” bias against blacks. It didn’t surprise me because my fingers were all screwed up. I think if I’d been given an opposite order, I’d have shown a slight bias against Whites. But I don’t know. I like to hope so, anyway.

  10. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Didn’t mean anything personal, Whitney. I’ve just been exposed to a few tests, and those haven’t been very helpful to me. It was probably the practitioners more than the tests themselves.

    For instance, Jody and I took one when we were applying to work at a children’s home, and what they told us about ourselves was the exact opposite of the truth (Jody would be too soft on the kids, and I’d be strict – I turned out to be the softie in that arena). Things like that have left me w/o lots of faith in them (just bad experiences probably).

    Anyhoo, didn’t mean to take a shot at the whole field.

  11. Whitney Says:

    Al, I didn’t think you were! I was just saying that I understand why people do. 🙂

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