The Snap Judgments We Make About ‘Other’ People

Published October 21, 2010

“When someone starts a statement by saying ‘I am not a bigot’,” writes Hubbub commenter Catherine Bracy, “something bigoted is probably about to come out of their mouth.”

That’s how Juan Williams began the sentence that would get him fired at NPR.

What if our biases, our judgments, our conclusions about other people are deeply set? What if our prejudice is wired in and we don’t even know it?

[pullquote]Project Implicit is an experiment that might surprise or even frustrate you.[/pullquote]

Project Implicit is an interactive Harvard experiment that might surprise or even frustrate you.

Pick a category — say, “Arab-Muslim/Other People”  — and a series of names appears. You have to quickly identify each name as either “Arab-Muslim” or “Other People.” Then a series of words and emotions appear. You must quickly identify each as either “Bad” or “Good.” I won’t spoil the rest.

“It is well known that people don’t always ‘speak their minds’, and it is suspected that people don’t always ‘know their minds’,” the website says. “Understanding such divergences is important to scientific psychology.”

Indeed, when Williams said on Fox News that he gets “nervous” when he sees people on a plane in Muslim garb, he wasn’t exactly bragging about it. He was trying to identify his built-in biases. A lot of viewers — rightly or wrongly — perceived his comments as hateful speech.

Take a test. Pick any category. Do the results surprise you? Share your reactions in the comments.