Last year Professor Hanson took on a New York Post cartoon in this blog post on The Situationist. The cartoon’s premise seems harmless enough: the chimpanzee that got shot in Conecticut was writing the stiumuls bill – i.e. that bill makes about as much sense as writings of a crazed chimp. But the cartoon drew quite the controversy:
After the jump, I try to ex
The focus of the controversy is a troubling associations that flow from the cartoon if one were to connect the authorship of the stimulus bill to the President. As Prof. H points out, with that (unintended) connection in mind, many disturbing issues come out of the cartoon: relations between African Americans and cops, perceived criminal propensities, and, most disturbingly, the idiotic notion that the Black race is closer to primates than other races.
But why inject racial tensions into a situation where neither the author nor the readers think about race? Well, that’s the point, Hanson argues that we (humans) think about race, whether it is conscious or not. In other words, when people look at the cartoon, for example, they may not consciously think about race or even make the bill-Obama connection. But certain, let’s call them gremlins, in the boiler room of the brain ARE thinking about race. They’re doing so without telling the conscious part of the brain. They’re thinking about race, they’re storing associations that might be used later (e.g. Blacks + crime). All the while, we consciously have no clue what’s going on in the back room, blissfully having a laugh at the clever jab at the lawmakers.
OK, so if you haven’t taken one Psy course in your life (or read one post on The Illusionist), this would sound like ground-shattering catastrophe. But having some exposure to cognition, I’m not surprise about the back-room-gremlins. They’re quite normal, and helpful actually. They loads of work so that we can have quick reactions when those are required. For example, the gremlins, over the course of our lives, collect identifying information on how a dangerous situation might look like. They have a sort of a database of dangerous situations (e.g. dark alley at night, stranger in torn cloths walking toward, a shine of metal in his right hand). When we encounter a situation, the gremlins see if it matches any situation in the “dangerous situation” database. If it does, we have things like gut feelings putting us on alert, increased blood pressure and adrenalin intake making fight or flight quicker, more reactive. In other words, we don’t have to think – it’s all pre-thought, saving us crazy amounts of time in responding to such situations.
If gremlins are normal and useful, why should we shy away from them in race related situations? Well, sometimes they’re just wrong. People often confuse gut feelings with some sort of premonition – it must be right. And gut feelings are probably right quite a bit of the time. But they’re no premonitions. They’re based on prior occurrences, other people’s (media, parents, peers) feeding your gremlins. They just look for similarities between the situation you’re in and the ones filed away in that database. If they’re similar enough, you get the gut feeling. So, using very basic reasoning, if our database on racial situations is based on media/family/community-perpetuated stereotypes that are not true for majority of Blacks, then the gremlins come up with wrong answers most of the time.
Hanson suggests that in situations where race comes up subconsciously, we should bring the race into the conscious. This is why he wants to talk about the racial problems with the at-first-sight-innocuous cartoon. There is some evidence that making the implicit explicit helps overcome pre-conceived subconscious associations. Example: Professor Schwartz conducted an experiment where people were asked about the general life satisfiction. Turned out that on rainy days, people reported lower general life satisfaction, compared to sunny days. So this is an example of when gremlins come out on the wrong side: why should today’s weather bear on your general life-satisfaction? Prof. Schwartz then sought to neutralize the gremlins by bringing the current weather into the conscious. And it worked – when the experimenter would start up a chat about current weather before asking about general life satisfaction, respondents started giving the same life satisfaction scores regardless of current weather.
Schwartz’ experiment is not quite on point here because what we’re really concerned with is the cartoon’s potential to subconsciously reinforce the negative stereotypes associated with Blacks. There is no evidence that bringing racial tensions to the fore would prevent the gremlins in the boiler room from adding to their database. But the lack of evidence may be due to difficulty of testing this – how do determine if an event added to a person’s storage of associations?
Hanson’s idea seems logical enough though: if we consciously bring out the race issues and discredit them, it’s possible that the gremlins will take into consideration our conscious rejection of the relevance of the input. At least it is worth a try.