Banaji and Greenwald do an excellent job of explaining the presence of blindspots, and the way blindsight makes it possible for our actions to betray our intentions. Banaji and Greenwald describe three systems susceptible to blindspot and blindsight phenomena: visual systems, memory systems, and social systems. It is not so surprising that I should have blindspots and blindsight, when I think about it. The physiological entity that is me: the composite unity of physiology, biology, chemistry, neurology, psychology, cognition, and cultural formations revealed through my uses of technology; is in a constant state of activity, processing sensory motor data and life sustaining processes. It is impossible for me to consciously control for all the sensory motor data I am continuously processing, nor for me to consciously control for every reaction or response I might have to this continuous flow of information.
As long as I am alive, my body is processing data and materials to sustain my life. I am not conscious of every aspect of this flow, one of the characteristics of living entities is their capacity to maintain structural coupling with the environments and ecological systems that sustain their life. Certain of these processes are so vital to living processes they operate and are maintained by systems that do not depend on conscious thought. Otherwise, I would have to remember to beat my heart, take a breath, secrete certain digestive chemicals, blink my eyes, perspire, shed tears, etc. On the physiological level it is easy to understand there are many processes going on below consciousness.
Banaji and Greenwald describe how physiological, neurological, and sociological systems also function autonomically, as well as consciously. Autonomic systems function by drawing on historical organizational structures that predict certain outcomes based on previous experience. Visually, these systems can be perceived by the phenomenon of ‘filling in’, when the brain constructs perceptual impressions that appear real to the mind. Neurologically, memory systems can be influenced by sensory motor data, demonstrating the phenomenon of ‘false memory’, that is, memories of certain contextual cues can be altered by subsequent experiences. Interpersonally, implicit beliefs or attitudes toward certain physiological, ethnic, behavioural, religious, socio-economic, etc. cues can influence behaviours toward certain social groups.
Banaji and Greenwald have developed a psychological test to expose the presence of sociological blindspots and blindsight. They call this assessment the Implicit Association Test. The test reveals hidden bias toward social groups that operate below the level of conscious awareness. At the end of the book, Banaji and Greenwald write that they have not figured out how to change hidden bias. They explain how they have not been able to change their own hidden bias through repeated testing, and despite efforts to consciously change their known bias. Their effort to consciously change have not resulted in a change in the underlying believes that support their hidden bias.
However, we have learned techniques that can actually influence the functioning of some of these autonomous systems with our minds. I can become conscious of my breathing, and slow the rate, depth, and quality of my breath. I can become conscious of muscle tension and use exercise techniques to relax the muscles. I can become conscious of my heart rate, and use meditation and breathing exercises to reduce the frequency of my heart’s palpitations.
Similarly, I argue there are ways we can identify and modify the underlying beliefs and behaviours that perpetuate hidden bias. For example, millions of people have benefited over decades to change the baffling problem of alcoholism and addictions of many kinds through the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous. Another example is the ways social attitudes toward women, children, the aged, the mentally disabled, social drinking, have been changing in recent years. I think the key point to these kinds of changes is that they are not undertaken in isolation, they are not done alone. I think our solution to alleviating the harm perpetuated by hidden bias is social. It is critical. It is inquiring. It is about how learn and unlearn, and how we develop new perspectives, which, in turn, lead to new behaviours.
I agree, it might not be possible to eradicate our accumulation of human prejudice and xenophobia in one lifetime. I do think, though, that a concerted effort, from one generation to the next, can, and will, change our habits of thought, and habits of behaviour, toward a more just, integrated, and pragmatic human condition.