ATLIS Reads: The Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People

For the opening of the school year, ATLIS inaugurates ATLIS Reads: A Book Seminar for Technology Thought Leaders, a series of four webinar conversations and a companion micro-course. Our first year-long book study seminar will address the theme of Leadership Literacies. In this blog post, Jared Colley of Oakridge School (TX) introduces the first book in the series, The Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People, and offers a series of questions to consider before joining our discussion online. Registration for the full seminar is required (no individual registrations will be offered) and limited to the first 30 participants, starting August 27, 2019. Registration is complimentary for ATLIS members, $129 for non-members. Register here for the book study seminar designed specifically by and for technology thought leaders in independent schools. -- SD

ATLIS Reads: A Book Seminar of Technology Thought Leaders
The Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People by Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony C Greenwald.

Webinar Conversation: September 25, 1 pm Eastern

Blog Post and Discussion Questions
by Conversation Leader Jared Colley
English Department Chair and Director of Professional Development,
Oakridge School

[15 minutes]

Blind Spot Book Cover A father and his son are in a car accident. The father dies at the scene, and the son, badly injured, is rushed to the hospital. In the operating room, the surgeon looks at the boy and says, “I can’t operate on this boy. He is my son.”

How could this possibly be the case?

Researchers Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald perplex readers with this predicament in their book, Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People. How could the surgeon be the boy’s father when the story stated that the dad died in the same car wreck that sent the boy to the ER in the first place? What are we missing here? In case you are as stumped as I was, the solution is embarrassingly simple: the doctor is the boy’s mother.

Never was it stated that the surgeon was a man. Most of us, however, fail to realize this due to certain ingrained, automatic associations we make when it comes to our assumptions about gender and the workplace. My wife, Kari Colley, a lawyer with a promising career at a major corporation, was (to her surprise) just as baffled as I was by the same thought experiment when I shared it with her the other night.

The authors of Blind Spot call these mental gaffs “mindbugs,” which they define as “ingrained habits of thought that lead to errors in how we perceive, remember, reason, and make decisions” (4). 

To explain the origin of “mindbugs” Banaji and Greenwald make a distinction between the reflective (conscious) and automatic (unconscious) parts of our cognitive functioning. For very good reasons, humans are programmed to categorize and group phenomena according to certain associations that may or may not be accurate. In the previous case, we were automatically associating “surgeons” with “adult males.” Evolutionarily, such automatic associations make sense because they can ensure that we run, for instance, when catching sight of what might be a tiger lurking in the distance. Citing Gordon Allport, the authors remind us that humans “must think with the aid of categories… Once formed, categories are the basis for normal prejudgment. We cannot possibly avoid this process. Orderly life depends on it” (78). 

The problem today for us as education leaders is that we are not guiding a group of hunter/gatherers through the dangerous, predator-filled forests of an earlier era -- a scenario where automatic cognition means the difference between life and death. Instead, we’re in the business of designing diverse, inclusive workspaces with a focus on creating a community that is sustainable, innovative, and welcoming to many ideas and perspectives. However, some of the “mindbugs” that served us so well in previous millenia undermine these very efforts -- even when we consciously have good intentions. 

This disconnect between what we reflectively believe (obviously, females are surgeons too) and how we instinctively react (males are the surgeons in society) is what the authors call “dissociation,” and it has undesirable consequences, regardless of the goodness of our conscious intentions. Understanding “that the ability to have conscious access to our minds is quite low,” the authors of Blindspot developed the Implicit-Association Tests (IATs), which measure the time it takes a test-taker to make certain associations (61). One indicator of automatic, implicit biases is the amount of time it takes to make certain associations versus others. To see how this works, try taking the Flower/Insect IAT. And if you’re ready for something more serious, try measuring your implicit bias with the Race IAT. Just so you know, out of all respondents, 75% of the results demonstrate an “automatic White preference,” and many of those respondents are not White (47).

Jared ColleyWhy is it important for us as leaders?

“Stereotypes are not distributed equally,” writes Banaji and Greenwald. “If you can be described by the default attributes of your society… you will be subject to less stereotyping than others… On the other hand, those who lack their society’s default characteristics are likely to be stereotyped” (92). As leaders we have to do the hard work of de-centering ourselves and becoming aware of our own “mindbugs” both in and outside the workplace because “whether we wantthem to or not, the attitudes of the culture at large infiltrate us,” meaning there is no socially neutral place - even at our most inclusive, diverse schools (68). To doctor one of the authors statements, “[Leaders] would rather know about the cracks in their own minds. In the same way that they would want to know about a high level of blood cholesterol so that they can take action against it, [leaders] wish to confront potentially harmful mental content. They do so to be more certain that their automatic unconscious thoughts do not result in actions that conflict with their reflective, rational side” (60). Stereotypes are easy to acquire because it’s part of the machinery of our minds, but as educational technology leaders, “the trick is to outsmart the machine... and the mindbugs that reside within [our brains]” (146). But how do we do it? How do we overcome or at least minimize our implicit biases? The IAT is definitely a good place to start, but other strategies are at our disposal as well.

I look forward to discussing such strategies with other ATLIS educators on September 25th for the first ATLIS Reads webinar. We want the webinar to be a conversation, so bring questions or leave comments and suggestions here or share them as #ATLISReads on Twitter. In the meantime, as you read Blind Spot, I encourage ATLIS Reads participants to consider the following as well:

Blind Spot Discussion Questions

  1. Take a moment to complete some of the IATs. Consider writing down some reflections about your results. What surprised you and why? What did you learn?

  2. What are ways to minimize the impact of implicit bias in our schools, classrooms, meetings, and when we hire new talent?

  3. As technology leaders, what might be the most damaging “mindbugs” that we should be aware of? (I think of ageist stereotypes, for instance.)

  4. How do awareness, knowledge, and understanding of one’s own identity promote effective teaching, leading, and learning?

  5. How do awareness, knowledge, and understanding of the identity of fellow colleagues promote effective teaching, leading, and learning?

  6. How can adults establish learning environments that are conscious of race, culture, gender, sexuality, class, age, etc. to ensure implementation of culturally responsive practices, policies, and procedures?

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