Mahzarin Banaji: “Technology has allowed us glimpses of our deepest nature”
In this moment when we are witness to the breakdown of systems financial and social in which so many had such faith, we might remember with a smile and even some mischief the words of Winston Churchill, who said that America–referring to the American government–that America can always be counted on to do the right thing, but not until it had tried every other method first. With much less of a smile, many of us in this room have surely wondered in recent months if perhaps we might have avoided inflicting suffering on so many, especially the most vulnerable amongst us, if our leaders had been educated, even slightly, in the core ideas of the social sciences and had an understanding, even a superficial one, of the power of its methods of discovery. Would we be a decidedly better society if we had had not one Senator Moynihan but dozens like him involved in setting policy domestically and advising globally? The answer, based on my deep confidence of the virtue of what social scientists have done, is a resounding yes. I was a teenager in India when Ambassador Moynihan was the United States representative to that country. And I surely gained personally from his role in the ingenious sequestering of P.L. 480 funds, which otherwise would have set that country on a severe inflationary trajectory. To know how to do this is not easy. It requires an ability to manufacture a whole system, to deliver a policy that will affect millions who will scarcely know how they were affected or even that they were affected. It requires deep knowledge of complex systems, but as I say to my students, social science is not rocket science, it is a whole lot harder.
What a thrill it is that this Academy so uniquely singles out a particular type of scholar to recognize, the ones of us who cannot stay put in one place. What a complete honor it is to be recognized by association to a giant, who stood for the social sciences as robustly as did Herbert Simon. Herb, as many of you may know, received his PhD in political science, one; sat in a department of psychology, two; was the founder of the field of computer science, three; and received the Nobel Prize in economics. It is hard to imagine that another one like him will be amongst us anytime soon, and I consider myself doubly privileged for knowing him up close through my husband, Bhaskar, whose mentor and thesis advisor he was. When this Academy was created to, it says, promote the progress of the social sciences it was an organization well ahead of its time. How many old societies can say that they included women from the beginning, even when that beginning was 115 years ago? Hell, around that time my university had turned Mary Calkins down for the degree of PhD even though she had met all requirements and obtained all necessary male signatures. It is also said of this organization’s Annals that in it difficult topics were not avoided. Indeed, it devoted the 1901 meeting to an analysis of race with Booker T. Washington presenting a paper. In this sense, the issues I have been passionate about and had the privilege of understanding have been the heart and soul of this Academy’s work, more than any other I can think of. So, again, I am indebted to you for this association with you.
But it is also true that progress being what it is, the founders of this Academy surely did not have my brand of social science in mind. In 1889, the idea of a computer was, as we know it, somewhat rudimentary. Computers aside, it would have been inconceivable that the time taken in milliseconds to complete a mental operation could in any sense inform contemporary political, economic, or social issues. And yet that is what my work, because of the work of those before me and alongside me, Susan Fiske most notably, has turned this into a thriving social science. We have taken complex thoughts and feelings, thoughts and feelings about ourselves, others who are similar, and especially others who are not so similar, and reduced them first to a number such as 550. It takes the mind 550 milliseconds to categorize the most important social entities in our universe so far, that is to say other humans, into social groups; black or white, male or female, rich or poor, old or young. And based on these numbers, in a slightly more complex configuration than I am letting on, we have made a host of claims that we ourselves could scarcely have imagined some years ago. We now know first and foremost that we are not the people we think we are. We are deeply flawed beings. Herb Simon used a more palatable phrase to refer to us as boundedly rational, not perfectly rational, not classically rational, but boundedly rational. Human beings, he said, have neither the facts nor the consistent structure of values nor the reasoning power at their disposal to make decisions in line with subjective expected utility, which he said is a beautiful object deserving a prominent place in Plato’s heaven of ideas but impossible to employ in any literal way in making actual human decisions. Our failures, we have learned, stem from the quite ordinary aspects of our brains and minds, our sociocultural environments, and the immediate situations in which we find ourselves. In spite of the many positive effects such influences have on us they also disrupt, for no obvious fault of our own, the moral pacts that we make with ourselves to be good, to be fair, to be just. To reveal these invisible aspects of our minds has been the difficulty. But the power of technology has allowed us glimpses of our deepest nature and how our social worlds shape us to be who we are, and to our great delight the message we have taken on the road, that we are unconsciously biased in ways that do not make us proud, seems to be slowly getting heard. It may not be welcomed, but it is being engaged with. Over ten million tests of implicit bias have been sampled at the website in the last ten years; legal scholars and lawyers have made use of these ideas in moving forward their own work; businesses have found that these ideas persuade even the most intransigent members about the barriers to diversity; doctors and social workers find it stunning that even they, the most well-intentioned of all, may be far from their own goal of serving everybody equally.
In all of this bleak rewriting of our natures, there is a silver splash. It being the 200th birth anniversary of Charles Darwin, it is especially timely to remember something that he said so well. Darwin said that it is not the strongest who will survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one who is most adaptive to change. What the social sciences that I am so fortunate to have been a part of have shown is that the darndest aspects of the mind can be explored and laid bare. To do with it what is right and what is good is in our hands because we are, above all else, infinitely adaptable.
Mahazarin Banaji is Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. These remarks were prepared for her induction as the 2009 Herbert Simon Fellow of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.
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