The Practical Benefits of Calls for Diversity

To start, I am going to assume that prejudice against women, non-whites, and other subordinate groups is bad — even when it is unconscious. If you think otherwise, then you can stop reading now and go listen to some Skrewdriver instead.

I am also going to assume that most, if not all, of us hold some implicit prejudices against women, non-whites, or other subordinate groups. As I said before, this assumption is quite well-supported by decades of research in the North American context, summarized here. If you are still skeptical, I invite you to try out some implicit association tests.

What can we do about the negative stereotypes that we implicitly hold? Clearly, being “gender blind” and “color blind” — contrary to what Andy Rutledge will have you believe — is not the answer. To do so is to give in to our lizard brains and to let our implicit prejudices win over our explicit anti-prejudicial commitments. (Again, if you don’t have these commitments, go listen to Skrewdriver.)

I want to suggest that boycott petitions and other explicit calls for diversity can have a kind of practical benefit that is only tangentially related to their stated goals. The upshot is that, whatever ambivalence you have about boycotts in general (and I have plenty), you should also take their hidden practical benefits into account.

I’ll focus on a recent research program by social psychologist Gordon Moskowitz and colleagues on suppressing implicit stereotypes. What they found is that one effective way to prevent the activation of implicit stereotypes is to prime people with egalitarian goals.

[Disclaimer: While the existence of implicit stereotypes is confirmed through decades of research, the work on the suppression of implicit stereotypes is relatively nascent. Apply appropriate caution.]

From Moskowitz’s review article on the implicit stereotype control:

In several experiments, the temporary priming of egalitarian goals was achieved in a fashion similar to Spencer et al. (1998) — by having people contemplate a failure. Research participants were asked to describe behavior from their recent past that clearly violated the egalitarian ideals they hold. In this case, the failure in question was regarding treating African Americans in an unbiased way. This failure at being egalitarian should trigger a goal to be egalitarian and initiate the inhibition of goals that are incompatible with being egalitarian, such as those that promote the activation of stereotypes.

[…] Do participants control the immediate and ‘automatic’ process of stereotype activation on a task that they do not know has anything to do with stereotyping? The answer is ‘yes’, but only if one had previously had an egalitarian goal triggered. Participants who write about a failure relating to a control goal show stereotype activation. However, people for whom egalitarian goals had been triggered showed stereotype inhibition — they respond slower to stereotype-relevant words (and only these words) following faces of Black, but not White, men.

[… in conjunction with other studies …] Thus, simply thinking about being egalitarian does not lead one to stereotype less, striving to be egalitarian, having a goal, does.

Implicit stereotypes can therefore be implicitly inhibited — by striving for an egalitarian goal. To reach a bit, we might say that thinking about past failures and trying to be egalitarian are more effective for preventing the activation of implicit stereotypes than consciously suppressing those implicit stereotypes. So one thing we can do about the negative stereotypes that we implicitly hold is give ourselves a special kind of attentional misdirection.

You probably see the application to the current conversation on diversity in tech already. There are practical benefits to Matt Andrews’s pointing out a conference’s failure to have a female speaker and Rebecca Rosen’s petitioning for the boycott of such conferences. They (mis)direct our attention to egalitarian goals. Then, in striving for those egalitarian goals, we are less prone to the activation of harmful unconscious stereotypes that we all probably hold. So even if you don’t think something like a boycott is the right response at the end of the day, there can still be practical benefits that come from someone calling for it.

Feel free to talk to me on Twitter: @RagingTBolt.

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