Last week I took a version of the Implicit Association Test. The aim of the test is to look at perhaps hidden bias in our own minds by looking at the difference in ability to associate positive terms with or negative terms or positive terms with a given race or identity, in this case not my own. I did quite poorly. I’m not even really sure I want to admit this. How comfortable am I admitting this result with my friends? Is that a conversation I want to have? Would it be hurtful to do so? Or is it only my own ego I would hurt?
So in short the survey was a really a horrible experience. I am grateful for the experience, but to be blunt I found it sickening. Have you ever felt self-conscious around yourself? Have you ever found yourself wondering what you might be thinking? A little tempted to squirm out of your own consciousness, and find some meaningless distraction? Have you ever attempted to eavesdrop on the conversation in your head as though looking for gossip? This week I have found myself questioning myself. I want to know if this is true in my interactions with people. Or at least I want to find out. It’s hard to say if I really want to know.
From the experience, I think there were two kinds of factors playing in on the unconscious mind – the mind on autopilot. The first a bias against another group, and the second a bias toward myself. The first is hard for me to wrap my mind around. The second is easier. What I have never noticed before is how many of my mnemonics are based on some system of ranking, of doling out importance. When I memorize numbers I use tricks like noticing when the digits add to 10, patterns and symmetry, and – conspicuously – a competition between the “good” even numbers and the “bad” odd numbers. I’ve done this for as long as I can remember without ever consciously deciding to do so.
What’s scary is how often I use “likeness to me” as a mnemonic. I’ll use my age, my initials, my favorite color, my “favorite” number, whatever it takes as a tag. And if I am trying to remember an ordered list or associate numbers with terms, I find it easier to remember when the more “me-like” is the greater. For example, potassium is “my” element because it’s abbreviation is “K.” My initial. The concentration of potassium is high inside the cell (I get to be the “insider”), and the Na+/K+-ATPase that maintains this gradient only pumps 2 K+ in for every 3 Na+ out (because I can’t be pushed around like so much sodium…). I use all sorts of mnemonics and the crazier the better. My memory is pretty horrible. Repetition hardly helps. My spelling skills are remedial (if anyone bothered to recognize that there is such a thing). But I don’t think I am off the mark when I say my memorization skills – the conscious ability to memorize what I set out to memorize – are very good. It’s something you practice as a biology major. But I’ve never pieced this together before; good at what cost? Have I trained myself to be quickly and instinctively egocentric?
And then there is the other factor that I have to wrestle with. The idea that with these results there is inherently a bias against. That’s the way this works. What do I do with that? I really like the concept so the hidden brain introduced by Shankar Vedantam. In effect he says that one of the best ways to get back control form the autopilot in my mind is to admit that the autopilot is there. To be aware of it. That’s what this assassination test did for me. Kind of like when a real pilot can be tricked into believing they are flying level between two layers of clouds, when if fact the clouds are not level at all. We need some instrumentation and hard and fast numbers to identify the false horizon. In the interview with Shankar Vedantam they talked about the idea of which person the autopilot of personal default or the conscious pilot is the “real you.” I really think it depends of which one is flying the plane. David Foster Wallace: “Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think.” Whether his long bout with depression and eventual suicide gives him credibility here or the lack of it could be taken either way; I fundamentally agree with this quote. So I will take it as a good thing: not getting a poor score on the Implicit Assessment Test, but having taken it and gotten a score at all. And I hope that this exercise will build into my arsenal and allow me to help facilitate similar experiences in the classroom and continually in my own life.