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Think you would never have a Rick Sanchez moment? Don’t be so sure

The firing earlier this month of CNN anchor Rick Sanchez for making what many people perceived to be anti-Semitic remarks — and his subsequent apology, in which he claimed his words were the result of exhaustion and not of any deep-seated personal beliefs — got science writer Maia Szalavitz to ask a question that has long intrigued psychologists:

“Who is the authentic self — the rude or bigoted person who may come out when we’re drunk or enraged or exhausted? Or the person we are the other 99% of the time, when sobriety allows us to tamp down our unsavory impulses?”

To determine “the authentic self,” writes Szalavitz on Time magazine’s website, many researchers rely on a relatively new (1990s) technique known as the Implicit Association Test (IAT).

“The IAT — which involves categorizing words and faces — is based on the simple premise that harder tasks take longer to do,” explains Szalavitz. “So, for example, if a person is slower at pairing positive attributes with African Americans than with whites, it would suggest that he or she has an implicit bias against blacks. The test has been adapted to measure virtually every type of bias, including race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and even tendency toward suicide.”

Data from studies using the IAT suggest “that about 88% of white Americans and a startling 48% of African Americans show a bias in favor of whites,” reports Szalavitz.

But does that unconscious bias affect behavior? Perhaps, writes Szalavitz:

“In a 2007 study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, doctors with high implicit bias against blacks were less likely to recommend clot-busting drugs to treat heart disease in hypothetical scenarios with black patients. Meanwhile, real-world research finds that doctors are twice as likely to recommend these potentially life-saving drugs to white patients than black patients, so it’s possible that bias could partly account for the difference.”

“The effects are even measurable in election results, according to author and journalist Shankar Vedantam, whose book, The Hidden Brain, explores unconscious motivations. ‘If you look at Congressional districts, if you tell me what the unconscious racial biases are, I will generally be able to tell you whether they will elect a Republican or a Democrat,’ he says. Although the effect of unconscious bias isn’t huge, in close races it can make a difference.”

Szalavitz discusses other research in her article, including a series of studies that show how easy it can be to lose control of one’s biases.

“For example, as people age, their ability to inhibit impulses is reduced, a loss of control that may be associated with an increased expression of racism,” she writes. “In one study, elderly participants whose mental focus was purposefully disrupted by a laboratory distraction task were found to be more likely to make biased remarks. Interestingly, however, providing rapid fuel to the brain decreases the expression of bias: in another study, adults who drank lemonade containing real sugar expressed fewer homophobic sentiments that those who were given Splenda-sweetened lemonade.”

There is some good news, however, for people who want to overcome their deep-seated biases. (And let’s hope everybody does.) “A large body of research shows that simply acting in a way that reflects particular values can strengthen belief in those values,” writes Szalavitz. “If we want our ‘real’ selves and our ideal selves to line up, we have to behave in a more egalitarian fashion — even if at first that means simply pretending not to be carrying the heavy, disturbing and uncomfortable cultural baggage that we are.”

To read Szalavitz’ Time magazine article, go here.

If you want to take a demo IAT test (or, perhaps, participate in an ongoing research project about prejudices and biases), go here (Harvard University’s Project Implicit website).

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