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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Over the last decade, two psychologists have revolutionized the scientific study of prejudice by developing ways to measure people's attitudes. Tony Greenwald at the University of Washington and Mahzarin Banaji at Harvard have a new book out now. It's called "Blind Spot."

Banaji recently sat down with NPR science correspondent Shankar Vedantam to talk about one idea in the book. I'm going to talk to Shankar in a minute about the implications of that idea. But he's going to lay the groundwork for us first.

Shankar?

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, Robert. You know, as I was reading the book, a story jumped out at me. It's a personal story. Mahzarin Banaji, this is the psychologist from Harvard, she has a friend and many years ago both of them were young professors at Yale. Banaji told me that her friend had a passion.

MAHZARIN BANAJI: She was a quilter and you would often see her sitting in the back of a lecture quilting away...

(LAUGHTER)

BANAJI: ...while she listened to a talk.

VEDANTAM: Now, the friend's name was Carla Kaplan(ph). And the story begins with an accident.

BANAJI: Carla had a terrible accident. She was washing a big crystal bowl in her kitchen, it slipped and it cut her hand quite severely.

VEDANTAM: The gash went from Kaplan's palm to her wrist. She raced over to Yale New Haven Hospital. Pretty much the first thing she told the ER doctor was that she was a quilter. She was worried about her hand. The doctor reassured her, started to stitch her up. He was doing a perfectly competent job. But at this moment, someone spotted Kaplan. It was a student of hers who was a volunteer at the hospital.

BANAJI: The students saw her and recognized her and said, Professor Kaplan, what are you doing here.

VEDANTAM: The ER doctor froze. He looked at Kaplan and he asked, you're a professor here at Yale?

BANAJI: She said suddenly they were calling in the best-known hand specialists in New England.

VEDANTAM: They brought in a whole team of doctors, operated for hours. They saved practically every last nerve.

BANAJI: Somehow it must be that the doctor was not moved by that, that the doctor did not feel compelled by the quilter story in the same way as he was compelled by a two-word phrase, Yale professor.

VEDANTAM: Banaji told me the story has made her reconsider how she thinks about prejudice.

BANAJI: We really measure prejudice in the old-fashioned way, by looking for acts of commission. What do I do? Do I go across town to burn down the church of somebody who's not from my denomination? That I can recognize as prejudice.

VEDANTAM: Banaji told me she started to ask herself whether favoritism is the way prejudice really works in the United States today.

BANAJI: I think that kind of act of helping towards people with whom we have some shared group identity is really the modern way in which discrimination likely happens.

VEDANTAM: You know, Robert, most of us don't do bad stuff to people who are different from us, but lots of us give special treatment to people who belong to our communities or our religion or our race. You know, and for those people we call in the hand specialist.

SIEGEL: And is this, Shankar, the thesis of the book "Blind Spot," that prejudice is actually a misguided altruism?

VEDANTAM: It's part of a broader thesis of the book, but I think the idea of the book really is that the conventional way we think about prejudice is to think about it as saying I dislike somebody from this other group and I'm going to do something harmful to them. A lot of what Banaji and Greenwald have done over the last 10 or 20 years is turn that idea on its head and say, is it possible that people do biased things without actually realizing that they're biased; that the brain in some ways has a blind spot in just the same way that the eye has a blind spot, that it's unintentional, and yet it has pervasive and important consequences?

SIEGEL: I want to ask about that anecdote. Banaji said two words made the difference, Yale professor. Each of those words is freighted differently. Yale is part of the community. Professor is prestige. You might treat a general in the army or a movie star better in the ER also for some reason. Which did they attach more importance to?

VEDANTAM: Well, I think Carla Kaplan believed that the fact that she was a faculty member at Yale is why she got the hand specialist and the team of doctors and that saying that she was a quilter was why she didn't get the hand specialist in the first place.

SIEGEL: Even though a quilter would rely on one's hands more directly than a professor would.

VEDANTAM: Exactly. I don't think we can actually disentangle these different effects, so it's entirely possible that if Barack Obama went to Yale New Haven Hospital, he would get the hand specialist even though he's not a Yale professor. I don't think the point here is that only, you know, that in-groups are defined in very narrow ways where we say somebody has to be from our university.

It's just the case that some people at Yale New Haven Hospital probably get better treatment than others.

SIEGEL: We have a long tradition of immigrant groups looking out for their members, societies that see to everything from helping the poor of one's own group to organizing burials and cemeteries. Is being part of a community like that and taking acts of commission for one's fellow members now being redefined as a form of prejudice?

VEDANTAM: So that's a really profound and important question, Robert, because I think you're exactly right, which is much of the time when we're helping other people, we're doing good things. And I don't think Banaji's point is that we should stop helping our friends or stop helping people from our groups. Her point is, we only give that help much of the time to people who are part of our groups.

And if we're going to try and overcome some of the enduring disparities we have in the United States, we have to try and direct some of that help to people whom we might not feel like helping, to people whom we might not feel like we have an immediate connection to.

SIEGEL: Shankar, thank you very much.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR science correspondent Shankar Vedantam. You can follow him on Twitter @HiddenBrain. And while you're at it, you can follow this program @NPRATC.

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