Bias Is Not Black & White: Smart People And Implicit Social Cognition

by:  Lisa Timmel at 05/29/2014

Rosie Benton and Billy Eugene Jones in the Huntington's production of Lydia R. Diamond's Stick Fly (2010). Photo: Scott Schuman.

The cast of characters in Lydia R. Diamond’s Smart People features two academics whose areas of study involve the ongoing complexities of racial stereotypes, especially the grey area of unconscious bias. Ginny Yang studies depression and anxiety in Asian-American women, and Brian White is “ . . . observing neurological responses the brain has to various images. How the brain is affected by race,” and supporting “sociological premises through brain chemistry analysis, imaging, biological data, that sort of thing.” For Brian, seeing is believing, and when he can show people who believe they do not discriminate that they do so unconsciously, perhaps he can make things change for the better. For Ginny, it is better to accept people’s biases as fact and develop coping strategies.

Anthony G. Greenwald

Diamond took inspiration for Brian’s goals and methodology from the work of social psychologists Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald, experts in implicit biases, which are unconscious prejudices that persist even as our explicit attitudes evolve. Their work has led to uniting with other researchers from across the country and around the world to create Project Implicit at Harvard University. Banaji and the team discovered in their research that most people, regardless of their professed beliefs or good intentions, have great difficulty associating images of black people with positive words or those of Asian-Americans with patriotic words and images. In a recent interview with The Boston Globe, Banaji remarked that this is one way to understand so-called “birthers,” people who do not believe that President Obama is an American-born citizen. They are hard-wired to see people of color as foreign. In 2013, Banaji and Greenwald published Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, a book that distills their work for the general public.

Mahzarin Banaji

Banaji and Greenwald’s work in turn builds on the research of Princeton professor Susan T. Fiske who (along with Amy Cuddy, Peter Glick, and Jun Xu) proposed a psychological theory that stereotypes possess two dimensions: warmth and competence. These dimensions complicate how we perceive and act upon our biases. This is called the Stereotype Content Model. In the play, Brian White breaks it down for his undergraduates this way:

"The SCM proposes that societal groups are appraised as intending either help or harm and as either capable of not enacting those intentions. The SCM model adds emotion to earlier research in impression formation and prejudice. It posits that the combinations of competence and warmth dimensions produce four distinct emotions toward social groups: pride, envy, pity, and disgust. Thus not all groups provoke animosity. Groups stereotyped as competent and warm elicit the in-group emotions of pride and admirations . . . "

The fundamental premise of Fiske’s research posits that people very easily categorize other people, particularly based on race, gender, and age. We only get to know people in categories beyond our own when we are motivated to do so by social or cultural forces like working in a group or playing on a team. We see this dynamic play out among the diverse characters in Smart People specifically as they are brought together through work and sport. As they try to form deeper bonds, they keep tripping over their own biases and assumptions about each other. In Smart People, Diamond makes their earnest foibles hilarious, poignant, and revelatory.

Nikkole Salter, Jason Dirden, Billy Eugene Jones, and Rosie Benton
in Lydia R. Diamond's Stick Fly at the Huntington. Photo: Scott Schuman.


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Lisa Timmel,  Bevin O'Gara, and Charles Haugland share their thoughts on New Plays, Dramatury, and their experience sharing nightly conversations with the audiences that come to see our shows. Get the inside scoop of new scripts and play development!


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