Bias Busters of the World Unite

But this book was evidently written for ‘good people’ in America. Don’t count on it to do India any favour
Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People | Mahzarin R Banaji & Anthony G Greenwald | Penguin | 254 pages | Rs 599
Its authors are psychologists famous for their Implicit Association Tests, aimed at catching ‘good people’ in denial of a prejudice.

Everyone has hidden biases, just as each of our eyes has a retinal blindspot. And these, say Mahzarin R Banaji and Anthony G Greenwald in Blind Spot, guide human behaviour in sneaky ways that one is not even conscious of. Could this be true—of everyone? As someone who majored in Statistics for love of the word ‘unbiased’ (as opposed to ‘lies’ and ‘damned lies’), or so I consciously like to think, I picked up this book to serve myself a reality check on my own inner bugs.

Ridding myself of my last self-aware bug, planted four years ago by a lady leaving a bar in a huff who backed her car into mine, had taken some effort. It had taken a close observation of roads and a raw estimation of odds. My conclusion: it’s not that women at the wheel are any worse than men, by and large, it’s just that female drivers are far fewer and vastly more noticeable on Indian streets, and so their rashness stays longer in memory. It’s also how visible minorities everywhere tend to get marked out and labelled unfairly for something or another.

This book, alas, does not bust any of my other biases. Its authors are psychologists famous for their Implicit Association Tests, aimed at catching ‘good people’ in denial of a prejudice. But—at the risk of betraying a bias or two—despite Professor Banaji’s Indian birth, the tests on offer would probably be pointless to a young desi.

On the flowers-versus-insects test (take it online at bit.ly/T8h6uD), my score of 4 turns out neutral: no clear preference, that is, for either life-form. But then, how can anyone who’s watched enough animated films dislike creepy-crawlies all that much?

In Antz, a worker ant called Zee played by Woody Allen rebels against the inequities of anthood. In Bee Movie, a feisty bee called Barry played by Jerry Seinfeld rouses his hive and kind’s fury against all of mankind for stealing their honey, gets all honeymakers to go on strike... and then, struck by an epiphany on the wonders of cross-fertilisation as the world’s flowers start dying, buzzes off to get the gooey work going again and thus save life on Planet Earth; it’s an allegory that people who can’t see eye-n-eye on complex issues might easily miss, but maybe young moviegoers would agree that everyone gets to gain from a budding exchange of ideas, no matter how creepy they seem.

The second test, the authors warn, is one you take at your own risk (of a shattered self-image). This is their famous ‘Race IAT’ that thousands of Americans have taken and agonised over. Again, it’s designed plainly for America, and leaves me looking for other attitude shapers to explain my score of minus 12: a ‘moderate preference’, that is, for faces of African-American over Caucasian kids. Being Indian could be an explanation. Or is it a childhood of chuckling at Arnold’s antics—my sole association—on a TV sitcom called Diff’rent Strokes?

As my rational faculties kick in, or what my fallible mind consciously classifies as such, it strikes me that it’s also possible to attribute my score to a subtle shift in the test’s format. Take a close look at how this particular ‘Race IAT’ is designed (online at bit.ly/TtkoCZ). Sheet A is like both sheets of the buds-and-bees test, with ‘pleasant’ pairings listed on the left. But Sheet B swaps ‘pleasant’ with ‘unpleasant’ on the left for a change. Arguably, this switch is disruptive enough to load the test in African-American favour.

That’s my only objection. The rest of Blind Spot is a worthy read.

What’s awaited is a test that could work in India, a country imperilled by insidious forms of injustice that can confound either-or binaries. This, after all, is a country that lets mobs turn prejudice into a pogrom all too often, and then sees shrugs galore as the rule-of-law kicks in hard and heavy to nab not its perpetrators but a marked man who grabs a gun in panicky self-defence; ask Sanjay Dutt, a tragic hero of hybrid heritage whose efforts to bust biases and barriers may yet outlive the gloats and goads that push him into a dim jail cell meant for a terrorist. One could sit back, sigh, and air-guitar along with Strings as they strum that peculiar pain to the chords of Yeh Hai Meri Kahaani, every breath testifying in empathy. But unless India’s ‘good people’ learn to acquaint themselves with their blindspots, there’ll be no relief.