Kahneman’s System 1 and Unconscious Prejudice

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kahnemanDaniel Kahneman’s ideas about two different kinds of thinking helped me better understand two major areas in which I have long-term interests. I wrote about the first, the acquisition of skill, the other day. Today we get to mull over the thorny issue of unconscious prejudice.

Conversations about inequality and its impact in daily life are often fraught with anxiety and defensiveness because nobody really likes to think of themselves as unfair. Even more the case, nobody likes being accused of it - whether that is benefitting from an unfair advantage bestowed by others (aka privilege) or behaving differently to others along established lines of social hierarchy.

But research shows that many of the endemic structural inequalities we find in material terms are evident in social attitudes even of people who disapprove of them. Identical job applications are read more favourably when associated with a male name than with a female one. Measurements of pupil dilation show a more positive response to pictures of white faces than of black. Unconscious prejudice is clearly rife, but by its very nature is hard to identify and therefore hard to address.

Kahneman’s formulation gives a wonderfully clear explanation of what is going on here: unconscious prejudice is quite simply a particular instance of System 1 thinking. If you recall, System 1 maintains an internal picture of normality, based on repetition of both direct experience and what our culture makes available to us. It is lazy and intuitive, and will have judged that young female scholar as too pretty to be taken seriously long before the System 2 judgement processes start appraising the rigor of her evidence and argument.

So that’s the System 1 unconscious prejudice in a nutshell, but there are several features of it that are worth noting in addition.

First is that sense of cognitive ease. We like the feeling of System 1 thinking, it feels effortless and safe, and puts us in a good mood, compared to the frowny struggle of slow System 2. No wonder we get huffy when people call us on our everyday sexism and casual racism; not only is there the whole social/ethical tension going on, but they are forcing us to activate our difficult thinking modes at a point when we were feeling cheerful. This is possibly why humour is such a powerful weapon for social change, as it allows people to stay in a more pleasant and creative state, and thus avoids associating a certain moral position with unpleasant cognitive and social experiences.

Second, there’s the mechanism by which System 1 is activated: by association. An idea that is activated in turn brings to mind those other ideas that are most closely linked with it in the internal picture of the world. And things become associated by consistent contiguity, by repetition. If most of the images of young women you see are presented as being there for your titillation, you are more likely look at real young women you see in the street through the lens of whether you fancy them. This is how Page 3 encourages wolf-whistling.

Representation, in the sense of cultural imagery, thus has a direct impact on representation in the sense of access to social and professional roles. If all the composers included in an A level syllabus are male, the problem is not merely that it subtly discourages female students from aspiring to be composers. I think most of us can get over that at that stage in our careers. The bigger problem is that nobody ever manages to remember the names of female composers, because they are right off the edge of the picture of ‘what counts as music’ presented in our libraries, concert halls and radio stations. Kahneman’s System 1 is thus talking about the same processes that Eleanor Rosch identified as prototype theory.

First lesson here then: making a conscious effort to counter stereotypes in those cultural representations you have control over makes a difference. And reinforcing stereotypes likewise actively impedes change. Saying it’s ‘just a joke’ doesn’t pass muster: jokes are, as we have already noted, a particularly potent form of cultural representation because they are vivid and carry emotional charge.

The third point is about priming. If a particular ideas has been evoked in your mind, then other ideas associated with it will come much more readily and fluently to mind as your System 1 response. This is why the set-up is so important, why publishers o to such lengths to be sure you really can judge a book by its cover, as it will shape how you understand your experience.

I learned this one in very practical terms on the comedy circuit. A good introduction really makes a difference as to how your set goes down with an audience. This is largely about the basic competencies of the MC. They need to get the audience feeling both relaxed and attentive, and believing they are about to have a good time. In this state, they laugh more easily, they don’t distract each other from the flow of the narrative, and they are ready and willing to enjoy themselves. But you can also find the unconscious prejudices of the MC priming those of the audience. Any time you are introduced as a ‘lady comedian’, or the MC comments on your appearance, you know that the audience have had all those discourses about ‘are women funny?’ primed and will respond that bit less easily.

So, if the content and quantity of representation makes a difference, priming will amplify that effect, for good for ill. First impressions count so much because the define the context in which people will make their intuitive, automated judgements about us and our work. Let us be thoughtful, therefore, not just in how we manage our own impact, but in how we present each other.

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