Sensitivity training and diversity inclusion programs are not new to college campuses. But on Monday, Sept. 12, the Yale Physics Club learned a lesson in the science behind implicit, or subconscious, biases.
The Yale Physics Club invited University of Florida psychology professor Kate Ratliff to talk about identifying prejudices in everyday decision-making. The workshop, from 3 to 4 p.m. on Monday afternoon, was attended by nearly a hundred undergrads, grad students and professors not exclusively affiliated with the Physics Department. The seminar sought to cover and convey the impact of implicit biases: prejudices that most people are unaware of even having.
“Perception is the product of our brains translating information for our minds to understand,” Ratliff explained to the audience. “We can’t reason with ourselves to change our perceptions to match reality.”
Ratliff demonstrated this notion with a series of optical illusions that challenged the audience’s ability to see what was really there. Swirling circles that were actually static and different colored blocks which were actually the same shade were just a few of the illusions offered up to the audience.
Ratliff then transitioned from a theoretical application of these false perceptions to a sociological one. She displayed two photographs of Hurricane Katrina survivors. In both photos, the subjects were carrying food from a flooded-out supermarket. However, the black subject was described as “looting” the goods, and the white subjects were described as “finding” the food in order to survive. Ratliff explained that these biased observations were very commonplace in all facets of media. According to the studies conducted by Project Implicit, these are all caused by our unconscious biases and assumptions.
Explicit biases are defined as prejudices we are aware of and have control over. Implicit ones are described as prejudices we are unaware of, ones that we cannot control or endorse. To what extent we cannot control these prejudices, even Ratliff is unsure.
“What we get from these tests aren’t what we get when we ask people about their biases,” Ratliff said during the talk in reference to an Implicit Association Test.
After giving the audience an implicit bias test about gender and career, Ratliff continued with data from similar studies and showed that medical professionals would opt to give the more expensive and beneficial treatment to whites over blacks when diagnosing a hypothetical case. In virtual reality simulations, police officers, regardless of race, were more likely to shoot an unarmed black individual than a white one. Another study indicated that women were judged by their demonstrated success where men were judged by their potential when it came to reviewing job applications. In addition to these studies, Ratliff believes that these biases have also resulted in the lack of political diversity in academia, noting an underrepresentation of conservatives in her own workplace.
“Being a woman in physics, I already expected what the results would be because that’s something that I’ve been acquainted with before and I expected more resistance from the audience,” Barbara Santiago ’17 said. While overall she believed the talk was very positive and the message was correctly conveyed, the absence of a margin of error in Ratliff’s graphs gave the audience pause.
“I just think it’s nice to start a conversation. I think it will be good to get people thinking,” physics professor Sarah Demers said. “We have a lot of practices in place in terms of our hiring and decision making in our department … A lot of this research has already been incorporated; it’s just nice to see this conversation continued.”
According to a source that would not like to be named due to the sensitive nature of the topic, the Physics Department has had several similar discussions in the past, but has had difficulty in getting the entirety of the department to attend. By having this lecture incorporated with the Yale Physics Club meeting, the source reasons, Yale seeks to educate the faculty members who chose to skip out on previous talks on implicit biases.
Paul Tipton, chair of the Physics Department believes there is still work to be done.
“I think right now, some of these best practices are still not being followed,” he said. “What it comes down to is just having a dose of humility in your own decision-making abilities and to be a little self-suspect and self-aware.”
Ratliff reasons that at Yale unrecognized prejudices can impact how professors grade students, how undergrads are picked for research and even the ideological makeup of faculty.
According to most studies Ratliff presented, not much can be done to mitigate these biases. Years and years of conditioning ingrain us with assumptions we use when presented with little information. Much like how we associate blue with cold and red with hot, stereotypes perpetuated in the media, be it of a racist Southern white man; delicate, passive housewives or criminally inclined black persons all add up to influence our judgment.
But Ratliff remains optimistic.
“I would really hope that people will recognize their potential for bias and how these biases might influence their behavior,” Ratliff said. “Starting with awareness is absolutely key. Awareness on its own is not the solution, but it is definitely a starting point. It is a huge hurdle to get people to think that this is applicable or important to them … but with awareness we can start to be mindful of our behavior and hopefully mitigate these biases.”