On Thursday evening, Harvard psychologist Mahzarin Banaji delivered a talk entitled “Group Love” where she demonstrated that the audience held an implicit bias for Yale over Princeton.
Banaji, who worked as a professor of psychology at Yale from 1986-2002 before taking a similar post at Harvard, focused in her talk on how group affiliations, or lack thereof, affect the ways in which we see the world and interact with others. In her research, Banaji has helped bring Freudian theories of the subconscious in the psychology laboratory to be empirically tested.
University President Peter Salovey delivered introductory remarks, saying Banaji had been the “heart and soul” of the Yale psychology department during her 16 years there.
“She is of those scientists who changes her field with her insights and her empirical data with a deep sense of social responsibility to her colleagues, her students and her field,” Salovey said.
In the lecture to roughly 100 people, Banaji first discussed an experiment she did in 2006 at Harvard that involved monitoring participants’ brain activity while they answered random questions about two hypothetical people, presented with only their political preferences. Neuroimaging showed that the subjects used different areas of the brain to make predictions about people with whom they agree and those with whom they disagree. Banaji used this study to introduce the idea of love of the in-group, a preference people have for a group of people who think the way that they themselves do.
Through presenting multiple studies, Banaji demonstrated the magnitude of positive bias towards the in-group in subjects ranging from sports fans to elementary school students. While we may not be able to eliminate our biases, Banaji said certain cognitive strategies can “outsmart” them. For instance, Banaji said she rotates among her computer screensavers images that defy racial and gender stereotypes.
“It’s not that we hate people of another group, but it’s love for the in-group that’s paramount,” she said.
Salovey and Banaji, who started as faculty at Yale on the very same day, were close friends and next door neighbors, he said. Salovey recalled that he and Banaji were each other’s “support systems” while writing PSYC 110 lectures together.
Banaji came to campus for this year’s Silliman Memorial Lecture, an annual speakership that began in 1888 and has brought such prominent scientific figures to campus as J.J. Thomson and Ernest Rutherford. Though a committee of faculty from Yale science departments usually chooses a speaker whose research is in the hard natural sciences, committee chair and Sterling professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry Joan Steitz said that her colleagues were eager to hear from Banaji this year. Though the lecture has no affiliation with Silliman College, the endowment is named for the mother of Benjamin Silliman, a scientist after whom the college is named.
“If you think about the impact that psychology and neurobiology and brain science [are] having these days, the committee did not consider it at all inappropriate to be going in that direction with this particular lecture,” Steitz said.
Since leaving Yale in 2002, Banaji has served as a professor of social ethics in Harvard’s psychology department, where she has continued her research on how unconscious thinking plays out in social situations.
Nick Friedlander ’17 said he found the lecture “eye-opening” because it revealed biases he did not know he held before.
For Zachary Williams ’17, the lecture demonstrated how little of the conscious mind controls mental processes.
“It was truly a treat to be able to sit in close quarters with such a fantastic paragon of academia and hear her talk about such relevant topics,” he said.
Banaji’s most recent book is entitled “Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People.”