"Science Is Beginning To Unmask The Bigot Inside Your Brain"

By Chris Mooney

NOTE: What follows is an except from a longer article in the latest issue of Mother Jones Magazine, January/February 2015.  While most of us acknowledge that we do carry built-in prejudices around many things, this article is a fascinating exploration into the biological, psychological and cultural “whys and hows” of what the author calls “unconscious racism.”   It is axiomatic that we make instantaneous decisions based on superficial clues and signals.   It’s the old “fight or flight” instinct we’re hard-wired for:  Is the guy slinking down the opposite side of the street a danger to me?  Should I run from cop who just charged around the corner in my direction?

There is something called the “Implicit Association Test” (IAT) that measures racial prejudices that we cannot control.  It’s really a series of tests.  In one of the series I took, apparently I have a “slight bias in favor of Black people” a characteristic only 6% of White Americans share. This result doesn’t surprise me.  I’ve found that the more intimately one comes to know “the dreaded other,” the greater are the positive associations and characterizations.  OK. This leitmotif DOESN’T hold true from my experience with Tea Party folks.  Trust me; they are just too damned mean and ignorant.

The test is available from  It’s worth doing. 

The article begins with the author’s description of his experience in taking the AIT – three times:

"YOU'RE NOT, LIKE, a total racist bastard," David Amodio tells me. He pauses. "Today."

I'm sitting in the soft-spoken cognitive neuroscientist's spotless office nestled within New York University's psychology department, but it feels like I'm at the doctor's, getting a dreaded diagnosis. On his giant monitor, Amodio shows me a big blob of data, a cluster of points depicting where people score on the Implicit Association Test. The test measures racial prejudices that we cannot consciously control. I've taken it three times now. This time around my uncontrolled prejudice, while clearly present, has come in significantly below the average for white people like me.

That certainly beats the first time I took the IAT online, on the website That time, my results showed a "strong automatic preference" for European Americans over African Americans. That was not a good thing to hear, but it's extremely common—51 percent of online test takers show moderate to strong bias.

Taking the IAT, one of the most popular tools among researchers trying to understand racism and prejudice, is both extremely simple and pretty traumatic. The test asks you to rapidly categorize images of faces as either "African American" or "European American" while you also categorize words (like "evil," "happy," "awful," and "peace") as either "good" or "bad." Faces and words flash on the screen, and you tap a key, as fast as you can, to indicate which category is appropriate.

Sometimes you're asked to sort African American faces and "good" words to one side of the screen. Other times, black faces are to be sorted with "bad" words. As words and faces keep flashing by, you struggle not to make too many sorting mistakes.

And then suddenly, you have a horrible realization. When black faces and "bad" words are paired together, you feel yourself becoming faster in your categorizing—an indication that the two are more easily linked in your mind. "It's like you're on a bike going downhill," Amodio says, "and you feel yourself going faster. So you can say, 'I know this is not how I want to come off,' but there's no other response option."

You think of yourself as a person who strives to be unprejudiced, but you can't control these split-second reactions. As the milliseconds are being tallied up, you know the tale they'll tell: When negative words and black faces are paired together, you're a better, faster categorizer. Which suggests that racially biased messages from the culture around you have shaped the very wiring of your brain.

This is only the introduction to the article.  It also delves into research and test findings about cops and their biases (deadly at times) and why they resist acknowledging that there might be a problem.  One of the most interesting tests is determining from a series of quick images flashed on a computer screen of Black and White men holding objects in their hands – some are guns others not  - and having to quickly decide whether to shoot or not.  

I have to say that this is one of the most revealing and enlightening pieces I’ve seen about the factors involving racism in some time.  It is well worth a read and the tests are fun in a way; frightening in other ways. 

The complete article is here:


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