Inattentional Blindness, our brain's automatic filter for things we notice and things we don't, may play a role in racism and social perception in Western culture. If confirmed, these results paint a picture of racism as starting at a level even more fundamental than subconscious thought.
Have you ever seen this video? Caution: Spoilers below.
This 1999 study by Simons and Chabris is a classic example of what is called “inattentional blindness”, and is a textbook example of how we don't decide what we see – our brain does. In the video above, most people pay attention only to what they are told to look for; everything else is, for all intents and purposes, rendered invisible.
As this effect was confirmed by more and more studies, researchers honed in on things that could influence it. Unsurprisingly, showing subjects pictures of animals beforehand (as opposed to pictures of random things, like chairs) made them more likely to see the gorilla in the video – these were known as “priming categories”. Priming goals also influenced what people saw and didn't see: subjects were more likely to see and notice things that would help achieve goals that they were presented.
Recently, a team of American researchers realized that they could use the effects of inattentional blindness and priming goals to research the roots of racism in society. Evidence shows that white Americans tend to consider African Americans more suitable for distant relationships than for intimate relationships, such as a romantic partner. But in the brain, where would this bias occur? Is it a conscious choice? An unconscious choice? Or is this bias so deeply ingrained in white Americans that the brain itself decides to not pay attention to African Americans as potential mates?
(Credit: Robert Kuykendall / Flickr)
This team of researchers used a video similar to the one shown above, but instead of a gorilla, either a white American male or an African American male would appear. One of the two videos was shown to white American women that had been asked to describe either an ideal romantic partner, friend, neighbor or coworker. By asking each woman to describe someone either very close (partner, friend) or not close (neighbor, coworker), they were primed with the goal of finding someone for that category.
Unsurprisingly, women who had just described their ideal lover or friend were more likely to notice a white American male in the video than an African American male. Their brain had been primed to search for someone to be close to them, and in that search the brain noticed the existence of white Americans, but rendered African Americans invisible. These results are dismal, but clear: the bias that white Americans have towards other white Americans is deeply rooted in the brain, such that in certain contexts, they literally don't see African Americans.
Though there are limitations to this study, like its gender specificity, if the results are validated there are strong implications about the extent to which racism is rooted in the minds of white Americans. Whether this is true only in American culture or can be applied more broadly to other nations must be studied further. Nonetheless, this work should be a call to everyone that there are prejudices we have that we are not – and cannot – be aware of.
The original research study, “The Invisible Man: Interpersonal Goals Moderate Inattentional Blindness to African Americans”, is available at: http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/features/xge-a0031407.pdf
About the Author
David Davila (@cozyneuroses), winner of runner-up and audience choice prizes in the international science communication competition Famelab 2014, currently lives in California, USA. Between working as an SAT teacher and reading up on the newest in neuroscience research, he spends his time experimenting with various flavours of cupcake recipes.