Friday, March 18, 2011


“The dream where you’re standing on the railroad tracks, in a fog, and then the train’s headlights appear out of nowhere and its thunder approaches, and you can’t move.”

“The dream where your friend is standing on the railroad tracks, in a fog, and then the train’s headlights appear out of nowhere and its thunder approaches, and you can’t move, and you can’t speak -- or yell -- or scream.”

Sunday, March 13, 2011


[On this blog, I tend to ignore my day job -- psychology. This entry is an exception: It speaks of a paper of ours that will soon be published in The British Journal of Social Psychology. Not sure how soon, BUT soon. The title is 'Prime and Prejudice', the authors are Paul Verhaeghen, Shelley Aikman, and Ana Van Gulick.]

Everyone, or so the song goes, is a little bit racist.

This can easily be verified by giving folks one of those the sneaky tests we psychologists excel at designing. Lexical decision, for instance. Is 'nug' a word? What about 'gun'? How long does it take you to make that decision? Now, let's prime you. Let's precede the word 'gun' by the word 'black'. See, now you're faster: When you think of black, you think of violence. What if we first show you the word 'white'? No speed-up at all. You are now officially racist: Only black makes you think of violent things. 'Woman'-'weak'? Bingo! 'Old'-'forgetful'? Indeed!

This stereotype priming effect, so many a social psychologist claims, reflects real attitudes in the real individual's head.

Is this so?

One curious finding in the social psychology literature on prejudice is that, tested with these priming measures, the supposedly downtrodden agree to the stereotype with remarkable ease -- black men unflinchingly endorse the view that blackness equals violence, women are quick to find women weak, and the one thing older folks happily remember is that they forget.

This finding has always puzzled me. Why would these folks so willingly put themselves down?

Something is afoot here.

As things go in academia, you learn a lot from your random peers.

One fine day, Dave Balota came to gave a talk at our* then place of employment. He mentioned a few other oddities of priming. Show folks a lion, and they recognize the word stripes much faster. Weird: Lions don't sport stripes. Lions are, however, associated with stripes through linkages -- the King of Beasts makes you think of its zoo-mate the tiger, or perhaps of its roam-mate on the savannah, the zebra. Lion: meet stripes.

The technical term for this type of association is (semantic) co-occurrence. That which is presented together often will stick in the mind together. (Plus, we humans are natural pattern detection machines. Throw a handful of diamond dust in the sky and we will see constellations. Give us a whiteboard and a set of half-moon glasses and we will connect George Soros with everything that is wrong in the world.)

This lion-stripe business. Maybe something similar is going on in this prejudice-priming stuff? In its journey through life, the mind gobbles up all kinds of information about how things in the world hang together; when requested, it spits it all back out, no malice intended. How often don't you hear that blacks are more athletic, that women are caring creatures, or that older folks are wise? (Positive stereotypes, but stereotypes nevertheless.) Hear it often enough and you might start believing it.

This idea of primed prejudice as semantic co-occurrence struck us as so simple and so utterly plausible that someone else surely must have done that study, we reasoned. Turned out nobody had. There were plenty of musings, but no hard data.

The study itself, we quickly understood, was trivial to design: What we needed was a set of prejudice-evoking prime-target pairs (old-wise, black-athletic, woman-caring; old-forgetful, black-violent, woman-weak), the associative value of those pairs, and then we needed a set of non-social pairs that matched those values (lion-stripe, or, rather, lion-mane). In the end, that turned out to be not trivial at all. Once we got our hands on a good database for semantic co-occurrence (Indiana University's Mike Jones's BEAGLE** was/is arguably the best, and he was willing to share), we quickly found out that there are very few associations in American English that top these prejudiced pairs (say, black-poor, or black-violent) in associative strength -- our very first cue that we were on to something.

Just to make sure, we replicated our experiment three times, each time with a different group of folks, and each time with a different task -- is the target ('poor' or 'poar') a word? Is the target something good or bad? Do prime and target fit together?

We found the same result in all three experiments: Folks are faster to answer any of our three questions when the pair of words is more closely related, but the type of pair doesn't make the slightest difference (i.e., summer-sun primes just as nicely and just as much as black-poor -- these pairs have about equal associative value). And the speed of response to our prejudice pairs did not correlate at all with the standard measures of racism, sexism and ageism our subjects filled out afterward.

The implication is clear. We may all be racist and sexist and ageist at heart, but this is not our doing -- we have merely internalized what we have been hearing and reading and seeing our whole life, that is, we have made ours the stuff the culture has been telling us over and over again in the relentless repeated patterns it shows us over and over again -- black quarterback, another black quarterback, hey, another black quarterback, and another one -- and we haplessly store it all in our thirsty memory banks, happily retrieving the connection and filling in the blank when presented with one end of the equation ('black = ?' -> 'black = athletic').The racist/sexist/ageist inside all of us is then not a monster of our own making; s/he is not a reflection of who we are, but of where we've been -- it simply, sadly shows we're Americans living in the here and now, or, more generally, human.

This conclusion is both reassuring and sad. Reassuring, because now we can understand why we are all a little bit racist (and sexist, and ageist); sad because we are. Sad too because it shows how much influence the media might have on our implicit knowledge structure. Doubly sad when you consider the state of these media, and how little sense of responsibility there seems to be concerning these issues. (Au contraire, maybe: The more you can play into preconceived notions, the larger your audience, the better your ratings?) Maybe triply sad because results like these can be easily misused. The consequences of bias and prejudice and hate are all too real, even if their origin must at least in part lie in the surrounding culture. Society's influence on its individual constituents, however, does not absolve these individuals from their own personal responsibilities. Perhaps thus, then, is one more reason for joy: Now that we know the Beast is there, and It's not our fault, we can at least look It in the eye, and scare It away.

*Shelley Aikman's and mine. Ana Van Gulick came to join us a little later as a Summer intern.
**BEAGLE calculates the co-occurrence of words in a database that supposedly everything the average undergraduate student in the US has read by the time they enter college; it has no fewer than 90,000 lexical entries.

Sunday, March 6, 2011


It is always entertaining to watch Evangelical Christians get their Jesus jones on.

This weekend, the NYC reports on a pastor, Rob Bell, who incurred wrath among a subset of said Evangelicals by putting forward the proposition -- I paraphrase -- that G*d in His bestowing of the final judgment cares more about what you did with your life than about what religion you nominally belonged to. Hence, chances are, Bell muses, that Gandhi might be in Heaven right now, rather than in the hell certain protestant theologians would relegate him to, because he, sorry, simply isn't a Christian, and hence Heaven is unattainable.

Those of us who are not evangelical Christians can giggle or guffaw. But it is an interesting problem, and arguably one of the hardest for revealed religions to crack: Why did the Singularly Omnipotent chose to reveal Himself to this particular stone-age (or Dark Age) tribe, and not to some other? Why is our G*d the One, and yours a mere counterfeit, although Yours too scream quite loudly (yet inaudibly) that They, accidentally and now that you mention it, are True, and all others False? How, in other words, to subject our diverse g*ds to a veracity test, using reason alone, I may add, rather than, say, military might?

The problem, of course, isn't so much theological as it is pragmatic -- it's a problem of control.

If one, indeed, in the day and age of extensive cross-cultural contact merely begins to contemplate such matters, and one does so honestly, it is easy to see that maybe there isn't a monopoly at all, and that all religions must to some extent be true. This is where Bell is at. It's an admirable feeling: Anything that can bring the fractions of humanity closer together rather than raging at each others' throats, or even just shouting into each others' ears, is a good thing, IMHO.

Bell's colleagues -- no dummies, I suppose, and with a keen eye on their wallets -- already see the next step looming. One tiny thinking step beyond that happy coexistence mode lands us squarely into a quagmire of relativism: If all g*ds are true, might one then not also contemplate the notion that therefore none are true, and hence entertain the distinct possibility that all g*ds are simply zombies, once human, now dead and roaming the earth preying for human flesh and souls -- plus also completely imaginary?

My favorite joke is this one: "My brain is my favorite organ, but look who's telling me that." All I'm sayin' is: Consider the source.