Why are you hitting yourself? Part 3: this post contains implicit content

This is part 3 of an ongoing discussion of a paper by Jost, Banaji and Nosek discussing System Justification Theory. Read Part 1. Read Part 2.

We left off last week looking at the ways that factoring in someone’s desire to approve of the way the world works (“I like things the way they are”) will lead her to defend the status quo, even if that status quo puts her at a disadvantage. The authors suggest 5 different mechanisms by which this effect might be seen: 1) rationalizing observed events by seeing the likely as the desirable; 2) using stereotypes to rationalize differences in power between groups; 3) using stereotypes more often when there is a cognitive ‘threat’ to the status quo; 4) accepting explanations regardless of their legitimacy; and 5) misremembering those explanations as being more legitimate than they are. When these factors work in parallel, we can explain much of the seemingly-idiosyncratic ways in which members of disadvantaged groups will sometimes defend the very system that holds them down.

In this installment, I will be delving into their discussion of what is one of the recurrent themes within my own analysis of racism: the fact that many of these mechanisms operate below the level of conscious awareness. Freud postulated the existence of three separate agents within the mind: the ego, the superego, and the id. His argument was that while conscious beings were able to be aware of their actions, many of the things that influence our behaviour happen without our even realizing it. While this idea has been around for decades and has a great deal of face validity, it is often ignored when we examine why people around us behave the way they do (another psychological concept called the Fundamental Attribution Error).

The authors of the paper suggest that, like many explanations for seemingly-irrational behaviour, the answer to the question of system justification may be found only by measuring ways in which people’s actions betray their subconscious thought processes. The question of favourability bias certainly came to mind: how can we be sure that favourable attitudes toward those on the higher side of power divides aren’t just evidence that minorities are just ‘nicer’? It might not be that there is genuine preference for those at the ‘top’, but rather that there is something about being on the ‘bottom’ that makes you less likely to criticize your betters. How could we measure that? This brings us to our next hypothesis:

Hypothesis 6: Members of low-status groups will exhibit outgroup favoritism even on (a) open-ended, nonreactive, qualitative measures, and (b) implicit, nonconscious cognitive, affective and behavioral measures.

Translation: We will still see support for those at the ‘top’ even after we control for “being nice”, because the process happens subconsciously

The authors cite a number of studies that support their hypothesis (as they do with all of them). One of the most compelling pieces of data they deputize into their argument comes from a fascinating study being conducted at Harvard called The Implicit Project. If you haven’t checked it out already, you really should. By time-stressing your cognitive processing, the study reveals subconscious bias – a bias that usually goes in favour of white faces and against black faces (for the record, I was one of the tiny minority that preferred black faces – I try not to read too much into that). The project demonstrates that, despite our incessant assertions that we “don’t see race”, our brains process that information with or without our permission to do so.

It’s not simply “noticing” race, however, that happens subconsciously. It leaks into our behaviours as well. The authors provide examples of an exercise in which all participants, regardless of race, demonstrated an increased willingness to work with white partners at a rate significantly greater than one would expect by chance. This flies in the face of the idea that people prefer to stick with ‘their own kind’, which is a popular meme of race dynamics. There appears to be more going on than simple racial adhesion. The effect is also seen in the male-child bias in things like naming and posting birth announcements – decisions that are (at least in most cases) agreed upon by both male and female parents in heterosexual couples. Perhaps the most frightening one was the example wherein police officers (both black and white) were more likely to fire upon African-American targets in training exercises than they were on white targets.

There is a corollary to this hypothesis:

Hypothesis 6′: Members of low-status groups will be more likely to exhibit outgroup favoritism on implicit measures than on explicit measures, whereas members of high-status groups will be more likely to exhibit ingroup favoritism on implicit measures than on explicit measures.

Translation: When measured implicitly, low-status groups will favour high-status groups, but high-status groups will favour themselves (when compared to what they claim their attitudes are).

Well let’s take a look, shall we?

Data from a web-based project shows exactly the kind of effect that the authors propose in hypothesis 6′: despite similar patterns of explicit favouritism, we see quite a different story when we examine implicit attitudes. White participants demonstrate a preference for other whites, but black participants do as well. If simple ‘own-preference’ were the case, we’d see something quite different, with both groups tending to favour their own to the exclusion of the other. The fact that we see the observed pattern, not only in racial dynamics, but in terms of age (bias favouring young over old from both groups) and sexual orientation (bias favouring straight over gay from both groups), is strong support of the merit of the hypothesis.

Concluding thoughts:

The idea that implicit attitudes, unavailable to the person holding them, might influence behaviour is probably the most difficult part of understanding racism. Because we have conceptualized bigotry as a thing that bad people do because they’re bad, we fail to recognize the role that our societal narratives play in not only forming our ideas, but our actions as well. We can see from the above examples that despite what we may believe about ourselves, we have a tendency to act in ways that are contrary. Because of the (perhaps unseen) pressure to approve of/make excuses for the world we live in, the effect of our biases serves those at the top of our various power divides. Recognizing that can be a powerful method of negating the effects of privilege; failure to recognize that will ultimately lead to those divides continuing to grow.

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  1. Enkidum says

    Nice post, I don’t think there’s anything there I disagree with except for the shout-out to Freud. Yes, Freud was one of the first to explicitly discuss an unconscious. But there are no entities within the mind that correspond to the ego, superego, and id. It’s WAY messier than that, and we don’t have any kind of proper taxonomy of what our conscious/unconscious systems are like. I wish we did – it would make my life a lot easier. But what we find are numerous – and I mean numerous interacting and interpenetrating systems, none of which can be comfortably identified as any of Freud’s big three. (At least not that I’m aware of, and though this is getting close to being my field, I’m happy to admit I could be ignorant of something major.)

  2. Crommunist says

    Oh yeah, the whole ego/id/superego triad is nonsense. I just brought them up because they are familiar concepts in psychology that give the reader an analogue for unconscious processing. AFAIK, most of what Freud came up with has been discredited as either too simplistic or just complete nonsense.

  3. Enkidum says

    Yeah, fair enough. I forget that there are people out there who don’t spend their daily lives immersed in psych papers :).

    I haven’t really read much Freud, but a few people I respect are suggesting that the pendulum has swung a little bit too far in the other direction: it is justified to hate on him, but he actually had a lot of insights which are now ignored as a result.

    However that’s tangential to your main point. Quick question: do the authors talk about fluency/ease of processing as a potential explanation for some of the effects they find? You may have mentioned this in a previous review and I missed it, in which case I apologize. At any rate, it’s a powerful and subtle effect which I think might play a role here.

  4. Crommunist says

    They do mention that the use of stereotypical explanations increases as systemic justification threat increases (that’s in Part 2). My basic understanding of stereotypes is that they allow heuristic processing of stimuli, thus reducing the cognitive workload. I don’t think they conclusively demonstrate, however, that it is the ease of processing (rather than, say, familiarity) that is of primary importance.

  5. quantheory says

    “for the record, I was one of the tiny minority that preferred black faces – I try not to read too much into that”

    I just felt like pointing out that, if I’m reading the data right, preferring black faces seems to only be a tiny minority position among white people.

    But either way, you’re probably right not to read into it. For one, the test probably loses some statistical significance when you’re talking about one specific individual. For another, these studies by design are not responsive to overt beliefs.

    A friend of mine actually took some of these IATs a few years ago (I really seem to have a lot of anecdotes related to this topic!). He has been involved in activism regarding portrayal of LGBTs in literature and messaging to gay teens that can affect their emotional stability, relationships with family, and self-esteem, and he also writes fetish-y gay erotica. He recently married to his partner of over a decade. Nonetheless he had a moderate pro-straight bias. On the other hand, I’d only been out for a couple of years, not particularly active in any gay or LGBT community, and I showed no bias either way.

    This isn’t enough information to determine where the difference comes from, but I have a hypothesis. He was raised Catholic, and first got involved in the LGBT community around the 70s/80s (he teases people about never revealing his real age). My church didn’t talk a lot about gender roles or homosexuality, and I left it early, and I didn’t really come out until the 21st century, at which point my first exposure to other bi and gay people was among geeks who were mostly just like my other friends. I suspect that some of these factors make the real difference between people with different IAT scores.

  6. Art says

    It is good that you are seeking answers. I doubt most of the presented hypotheses make much sense. A few seem to get some traction but I think you’re over-thinking it.

    I think you will find better answers by referring to the literature of how abused children act in relation their abuser. Specifically why an abused child, given a choice between abusing and non-abusing parents, will almost always move toward the abuser.

    The reasons this is so covers a lot of the ground you are attempting to go over.

  7. Katalina says

    Tee hee, because Freud was a huge coke-head! Totally off-topic, but I recently watched a documentary on the history of cocaine, and Freud was an early adopter and used it as a medication for lots of his patients. And used lots of it as medication for himself. No wonder he was obsessed with sex!

    But I think his id/ego/superego triad was a good first attempt at expressing the complexity of the subconscious and the ways our thought processes are socialized by our environment. If you look at him as the Wright brothers of psychology, he’s pretty impressive. But his work is obviously more of a prototype than a 747 – a foundation, not a modern structure.

    Now on-topic, the duality of our internal/external preferences is fascinating. I wonder what life would be like if there were no social consequences to being totally “authentic.”

  8. Crommunist says

    Have you heard of an idea called “Radical Honesty”? Basically the premise is to refuse to tell even those little lies that lubricate social interaction, because it’s easier (and better) to deal with people completely honestly. Hard to pull off, but that would be probably the closest real-world analogue to what you’re suggesting.

  9. Katalina says

    Oh, I’m waaaaay too much of a coward to do that! Sadly, I really care about whether people like me or not. I do, however, love that old Bob Hope movie called “Nothing But The Truth,” where he agrees to only tell the truth for a whole weekend, and if he’s successful, he gets a promotion or something, and he can’t get out of it by hiding away… and he has to spend the whole weekend on a ship with his boss and his boss’s swanky friends. Havoc ensues. Awesome movie. Kind of like Liar Liar, but with intention, which makes it so much more interesting. Plus there’s no Tony Robbins, who I find to be a little scary.

  10. Art says

    “You know that I didn’t make this thing up, right?”

    Not important. Arguments from authority, secondhand authority at that, don’t impress me. Factoids that don’t produce artifacts are just diversions. I don’t see it going anywhere.

    I suggested you might link it to wider psychological trends, like the deep-seated need for people to feel they are part of a system, even an unjust system, and that at some level the system can/might work. Abused kids, kids with far fewer resources than any racial minority, adapt. Adapt, in part, by showing the same behaviors you are talking about.

    Study kids, independent of race, and you might avoid many of the recursive perceptual errors you are bucking. Free of baggage you might get to useful conclusions far more quickly, that then might be applied to racial issues.

    But here again you’ve already categorized me, pigeonholed my assumptions and conclusions. So now you can discount both me and my comments. Handy that.

  11. Crommunist says

    It’s not an argument from authority. The conceptual framework is supported by evidence. That’s what the article is – a review of the literature supporting the evidence. What you’re suggesting is that we throw out all the evidence and instead subscribe to your pet theory. You might not “see it going anywhere”, but the hypotheses stand up under experimental conditions.

    But here again you’ve already categorized me, pigeonholed my assumptions and conclusions.

    Uh… what? I asked you if you understood that this wasn’t something I just made up on a whim – that it was a peer-reviewed scientific theory with plenty of support. Because it really seemed (and still does) as though you don’t have a clue what you’re talking about. I discount your comments because they have absolutely no connection whatsoever to anything in this post. I’ve made no reference whatsoever to your assumptions and conclusions – I just don’t understand what the heck you’re talking about. But since you’re apparently determined to wear the ‘victim’ hat, feel free to do so if it makes you happy.

  12. quantheory says

    I want to analyze the communication style of Art’s post for a moment.

    It is good that you are seeking answers. I doubt most of the presented hypotheses make much sense. A few seem to get some traction but I think you’re over-thinking it.

    The first sentence is clearly unnecessary in that it conveys no unfamiliar information, so why is it present? A throwaway compliment or concession, followed by criticism, is a common sign of defensiveness (also known as “Yes, but…”). The speaker delivers the compliment to butter up the target and/or head off any accusation that she is being unreasonable, suspecting that otherwise her statement will seem aggressive.

    Alternatively, an extremely mild compliment can be used as a patronizing sort of encouragement. Most people would not congratulate a college professor merely for “seeking answers”, but they might do so to a child, or to a deconverting fanatic.

    Alternatively, Art might simply be trying to be polite, or he might deliver such “compliments” as a matter of habit, and simply lack the social skills to recognize that the tone of his message can easily be misconstrued as condescending.

    This paragraph is too vague to provide useful feedback. “Seeking answers” to what? Which hypotheses don’t make sense? In what way? Contrasted against what evidence? This level of vagueness and lack of support suggests that either the writer hasn’t thought about the details himself, or that he doesn’t care to explain, or that he expects his opinion to carry some sort of recognized authority that obviates the need for him to explain himself. If this was merely an introduction to a more detailed explanation, a vague overview would make sense, but the rest of the comment consists merely of gesturing towards general topics.

    Claiming that Crommunist is “over-thinking” the issue suggests that Art believes Crommunist is attempting to generate original ideas. While that may be true of some of the commentary, this is clearly not true of the hypotheses, which are the only part of the post that Art has mentioned.

    I think you will find better answers by referring to the literature of how abused children act in relation their abuser. Specifically why an abused child, given a choice between abusing and non-abusing parents, will almost always move toward the abuser.

    The condescending tone intensifies here. The implication is that Art has found answers, but rather than discussing them directly, he’s going to lead Crommunist down a trail of bread crumbs to the answer, as a teacher leading a student. Of course, Crommunist has no reason to suspect that Art actually has “better answers”, since this advice is too vague to describe what those answers are, or what is wrong with SJT. It’s curious that Art speaks as if other people will credit his opinion above their own, even though he has given no real support for his statements.

    Telling someone that they have to read more about a given subject to develop a useful viewpoint, without pointing out flaws in their viewpoint directly, carries the implication that the speaker has such a low opinion of the other person’s knowledge that he is unwilling to even waste time attempting to educate them directly.

    The especially odd thing about this case is that Art is advising Crommunist not to study the subject at hand further, but rather to dive into a different subject (the psychology of abused children). If there was a body of solid research showing that the two situations were actually analogous, and not just superficially similar, one would expect Art to mention this research, rather than just point at a field that he hasn’t shown is directly relevant.

    Additionally, we can see that the tone is friendly and patronizing, but not aggressive. Art is using defensive and evasive language, which shows a lack of respect for his audience, but does not seem to perceive Crommunist as an intellectual threat, which suggests that he is confident that he will come across as reasonable.

    The reasons this is so covers a lot of the ground you are attempting to go over.

    Again, a vague gesture towards some unspecified relevant information. Using the word “attempting” implies that Crommunist is doomed to fail with his current approach, which has not been demonstrated. When Art implies that he has got it figured out, and Crommunist is barking up the wrong tree, without feeling any apparent need to justify these assertions, it appears as if Art feels that his opinion carries some sort of special weight that others should respect. Whether conscious or not, Art clearly speaks as though his words carry some kind of special authority.

    This is worsened by the implication that Crommunist has chosen this approach out of his own initiative. Art does not acknowledge the original paper, implying either that he is unaware that Crommunist is presenting the work of others (showing that he didn’t bother reading the post carefully), or else that his sense of personal authority extends beyond merely presenting his opinion as obviously superior to Crommunist’s, in fact placing his opinion above that of the researchers promoting SJT. Which is odd, because if we were to make any allowances for personal authority at all, it seems like we should assume by default that the researchers are more knowledgeable than a random commenter.

  13. quantheory says

    I won’t read Art’s second post as closely, but there are some interesting features there too.

    Arguments from authority, secondhand authority at that, don’t impress me.

    This is a common type of display of status within skeptical and atheist communities. These communities place a high value on clear, critical thinking, and an awareness of the logical fallacies and cognitive biases that would otherwise impede such thinking. Accordingly, skeptics who are seeking to display their status or dominance in a conversation sometimes make a show of pointing out the fallacies, mistakes, and irrational motivations of others, much as I am doing now. While this drive may be productive in many cases, some skeptics seem to make inappropriate accusations in order to rationalize their own positions. Ironically, an increased understanding of critical thinking and skepticism, if said skepticism is applied disproportionately towards opponents rather than the self, can actually increase confirmation bias and one’s self-serving belief that one is less biased than others.

    Of course, in this case, there is no fallacious argument from authority. Firstly, the authors of the paper in question have legitimate, relevant authority due to their expertise. Secondly, the paper being referred to contains specific evidence, arguments, and citations, which do not rest upon the authority of the authors. Thirdly, Crommunist is clearly trying to produce an overview and commentary of the paper, not duplicate all of the work therein, which would be redundant since he has already linked to the original.

    Study kids, independent of race, and you might avoid many of the recursive perceptual errors you are bucking. Free of baggage you might get to useful conclusions far more quickly, that then might be applied to racial issues.

    More references to “recursive perceptual errors” and “baggage” that has not been shown to exist. The overwhelming impression is one of arrogance and lack of self-awareness.

    But here again you’ve already categorized me, pigeonholed my assumptions and conclusions. So now you can discount both me and my comments. Handy that.

    This is an impossible deduction to derive from a single, mild question. That’s not categorizing or pigeonholing.

    Categorizing and pigeonholing looks a bit more like what I’m doing.

    This paragraph sounds like someone who believes they have been wounded or slandered in some way, to a degree which is clearly out of touch with reality. The question is: in what way? Does this person have a sort of martyr complex? Is this an outgrowth of the previously mentioned defensiveness, wherein one attempts to head of criticisms of oneself before they have even been made? Is this an extremely mild form of paranoid delusion?

    I’m afraid I lack the data and expertise to determine that.


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