May 082013

NPR recently ran a fascinating story on the origins of social prejudice: What Does Modern Prejudice Look Like? The article discusses a new book — Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People (kindle) by Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald — on how people tend to render assistance to strangers based on some kind of value-connection, thus inadvertently entrenching social boundaries and biases.

Here’s a story from the article that illustrates the power of such value-connections with strangers:

In the book, Banaji writes that Kaplan once had a terrible kitchen accident. “She was washing a big crystal bowl in her kitchen,” Banaji says. “It slipped and it cut her hand quite severely.” The gash went from Kaplan’s palm to her wrist. She raced over to Yale-New Haven Hospital. Pretty much the first thing she told the ER doctor was that she was a quilter. She was worried about her hand. The doctor reassured her and started to stitch her up. He was doing a perfectly competent job, she says.

But at this moment someone spotted Kaplan. It was a student, who was a volunteer at the hospital. “The student saw her, recognized her, and said, ‘Professor Kaplan, what are you doing here?’ ” Banaji says. The ER doctor froze. He looked at Kaplan. He asked the bleeding young woman if she was a Yale faculty member. Kaplan told him she was. Everything changed in an instant. The hospital tracked down the best-known hand specialist in New England. They brought in a whole team of doctors. They operated for hours and tried to save practically every last nerve.

Banaji says she and Kaplan asked themselves later why the doctor had not called in the specialist right away. “Somehow,” Banaji says, “it must be that the doctor was not moved, did not feel compelled by the quilter story in the same way as he was compelled by a two-word phrase, ‘Yale professor.’”

Kaplan told Banaji that she was able to go back to quilting, but that she still occasionally feels a twinge in the hand. And it made her wonder what might have happened if she hadn’t received the best treatment.

Basically, the authors argue that much prejudice in the modern society is not the product of overt hatred, but rather patterns of favoritism. The article explains:

The insidious thing about favoritism is that it doesn’t feel icky in any way, Banaji says. We feel like a great friend when we give a buddy a foot in the door to a job interview at our workplace. We feel like good parents when we arrange a class trip for our daughter’s class to our place of work. We feel like generous people when we give our neighbors extra tickets to a sports game or a show.

In each case, however, Banaji, Greenwald and DiTomaso might argue, we strengthen existing patterns of advantage and disadvantage because our friends, neighbors and children’s classmates are overwhelmingly likely to share our own racial, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds. When we help someone from one of these in-groups, we don’t stop to ask: Whom are we not helping?

Now, I don’t think that such forms of benevolence should be regarded as “biased” or “wrong” in any way. People should exercise their benevolence and charity on causes and people that matter to them! However, I’d add that people should think hard about the importance of their values, as some make a better basis for generosity than others.

The fact that someone lives near your childhood home, for example, doesn’t reveal anything special about that person. That the person is a friend of a friend is more instructive, provided that you choose your friends well. Similarly, if you want to be a decent doctor, you don’t ignore the patient when she tells you that her hand function really matters to her, but then pull out all the stops when you learn that she’s a Yale professor.

That being said, for a person to deliberately aim to help worthy but “underserved” people is not altruism. By doing that, your generosity gets more bang for the buck — and that might easily outweigh any tenuous value-connection. Personally, that’s how I tend to direct my non-activist charitable dollars: I don’t give to causes that everyone posts about on Facebook, but rather to the less-popular cases in which help is desperately needed.

Here’s another example: Many dogs are waiting to be adopted, but large black dogs often languish for months or years longer than others. Personally, I don’t care much about the color of my dog, although I’m passionate about rescue. So why not look for that fabulous large black dog that others have overlooked? That seems like a win-win to me!

Back to the NPR article… the book definitely looks interesting to me, as I want to think more deeply about issues of charity and generosity. (I expect that I’ll disagree with aspects of it, of course.) The book is Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People by Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald. It’s available in hardcover or kindle.

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