Laurel or Yanny? UVA prof studies implicit bias

UVA psychology prof Brian Nosek is offering training sessions on implicit bias. He says perception is not subject to reason. Courtesy Brian Nosek UVA psychology prof Brian Nosek is offering training sessions on implicit bias. He says perception is not subject to reason. Courtesy Brian Nosek

By Jonathan Haynes

Brian Nosek is using science to help the Charlottesville community recover from the events of August 12. But he isn’t studying neo-Nazis wielding clubs and riot shields. Instead, he’s focusing on something that exists in all of us: implicit bias.

During a recent event at the MLK Performing Arts Center at Charlottesville High School, Nosek delivered a presentation on implicit bias to demonstrate how unconscious associations may affect our decision-making.

The first paper on implicit association was authored by Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald in 1995. Shortly after, Nosek enrolled in Yale’s doctoral program, with Banaji as his thesis advisor, where he developed the Implicit Association Test, an online tool that measures the unconscious associations people make.

Nosek, who joined the UVA psychology department as an assistant professor in 2002 and founded the Center for Open Science in 2013, has discovered that people more easily associate the word “pleasant” with white faces than they do black faces. Other studies have indicated similar unconscious preferences for men over women and straight people over gay people. In general, people tend to favor the dominant group, even when the subject is a member of the minority.

At the MLK event, which was co-sponsored by the Charlottesville Office of Human Rights, Nosek began with a task for the audience: As he projected a clip of someone uttering gibberish onto the screen, one side of the audience would look down while the other side would watch and listen. The side looking down heard “baba,” but the side watching the screen heard the accurate word, “gaga.”

Nosek explained that this is because speech comprehension is auditory and visual, so people who couldn’t see the mouth moving had to make an immediate assumption to figure out what the person was saying. In other words, we make unconscious assumptions to piece together our incomplete perception of the world. According to Nosek, this applies to our perception of and behavior towards others.

Nosek also criticized the tendency for people to oversell implicit bias training. “Starbucks said, ‘We’re going to implement training to get rid of employee bias and make sure this never happens again.’ No, that’s not how it works,” he says, referring to the incident in which a Philadelphia Starbucks employee called police on two black men for “trespassing” when they sat down without ordering anything after being told they could not use the restroom.   

Rather, he says the idea behind the Implicit Association Test is to make people aware of their biases so they can challenge them. In the final segment of his presentation, he outlined some behavioral prescriptions: Look for counter-evidence when making a judgment, slow down and think when making a decision, complete ongoing evaluations of bias, and pressure more organizations to collect demographic data.

This was the third installment of a four-part series on implicit bias. The first, which took place in March, was a voluntary session for city employees and was attended by some police officers. The second, in May, was for the business community, and a final session will be offered to educators at the beginning of the school year.

More events tackling anti-racism are scheduled for this week. Virginia Humanities is holding a three-day series led by Charlottesville youth and young adults starting June 21. Attendance is free but registration is required at the Virginia Humanities website.