Referencing Malcolm Gladwell's Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, the Implicit Association Test (IAT) shows that our unconscious attitudes may be utterly incompatible with our stated conscious values. So like car salesmen who unconsciously discriminate against certain groups of potential customers or businesses that appear to favor tall men for CEOs, do you find it plausible that we are not accountable for these actions because they are a result of social influences as opposed to personal beliefs?
Chapter Three of Malcolm Gladwell’s 2005 study focuses on the application of the Implicit Association Test (IAT), developed in the late 1990s by social psychologist Anthony Greenwald and his colleagues. The IAT is used to identify latent prejudices that individuals may or may not be aware they possess. The principle behind the IAT is to analyze the snap judgments people about each other on the basis of superficial characteristics, and the example Gladwell uses is that of President Warren Harding (1865-1923; term in office: March 1921-August 1923). As Gladwell describes the scene, a successful political operative, entirely by chance, found himself next to a young, small-town newspaper editor, Warren Harding. The political operative’s initial impressions of Harding were phenomenally positive, and the operative dedicated himself to advancing Harding’s political career, all the way to the White House. To the operative, Harry Daughtery, Harding possessed all the physical attributes necessary to appeal to voters. Daughtery was correct in his assessment of Harding’s attractiveness as a candidate; unfortunately, Harding was one of the worst presidents in the nation’s history.
From the Daughtery-Harding example, Gladwell proceeds to examine the way in which people judge each other on the basis of subconscious biases (which can, of course, be either positive or negative). Professor Greenwald and his colleagues developed a means of analyzing how individuals perceive images, especially when presented side-by-side. The tool they developed was the IAT. The IAT has been frequently used by social psychologists since Greenwald’s 1998 publication of the test’s development. Its use in identifying hidden prejudices – prejudices that in many cases those subjected to the test didn’t even realize they had – has enabled researchers to better document the roles of racism, sexism, and other prejudices in determining opportunities for minorities, women and others.
That many individuals subconsciously view minorities or other categories of individual through a particular prism – a prism that distorts perceptions – is well-established. Individuals who profess no prejudice towards a particular ethnicity may, when tested, reveal that such biases do exist and that these individuals do make decisions or judgments based at least in part on those biases.
Now, the question – should people be held accountable for prejudices formed by social influences of which they may not be aware – is reasonable to consider. At the end of the day, however, people should be held accountable for holding prejudicial views. Children taught to hate other ethnic groups are innocent victims, but must be corrected when those views are exposed or manifested in actions intended to victimize others. Certainly, individuals, including adults and children, exposed as prejudiced against other ethnicities, religions or genders can be treated more deferentially if it is apparent that the odious views are the result of social influences, but those views should be addressed in a calm, methodical manner. In other words, people who act inappropriately towards minorities, but whose perceptions were shaped by factors beyond their control (e.g., by parents, friends, teachers, etc.), should be educated regarding the fallacies implicit in their perceptions.
Prejudicial behavior that places others at a disadvantage is wrong. The advantage of a process like the IAT is that it can reveal or expose biases that individuals may implicitly acknowledge they have, but which they choose to ignore, and it can expose biases that lie deeper within the subconscious so that oblivious individuals can recognize and address the problem. Biases formed of social influences do not warrant the kind of militant condemnation we might associate with overt and entirely irrational manifestations of racism, but people who harbor such biases should be diplomatically confronted about them in the hope that, by shining light on aberrant views, they can be addressed and eliminated.