This is Your Brain on Stereotypes: How Science is Tackling Unconscious Bias
by Tanya Lloyd Kyi and illustrated by Drew Shannon is one of those great books that every library should have at least one copy of so kids and teenagers can get their hands on it and every parent should read it, too. Heck, everyone should read it.
The back cover says that this book explores---
- how to recognize stereotypes, why they can be harmful and how to combat them;
- the secret biases in our brains;
- how science can help us rewire our minds--and our societies.
It also says that our brains sort things, including people. "And that's where life gets really complicated." This leads to the questions---how and why do our brains create categories and how can we avoid falling into the stereotype trap?
Honestly, I think the blurbs on the back sound a bit boring and don't let the reader know all the variety of topics it explores. So let me expand of each point.
First, what is the big deal about sorting people into categories? We all do it. Well, it isn't a problem if you categorize people into groups like thinking of video gamers as boys, because, um, it is true with around 60% of gamers being male. But when we categorize people into races/gender, sexual oritentaitons and then treating them different because of that categorization. That causes problems like--black men being nine times more likely to be killed by police, First Nations youth not receiving the same level of healthcare as other Canadians or American LGBTQ+ youth being bullied in American schools.
One researcher, Joshua Correll, believes that stereotypes actually change the way our brains interpret visual information. He invited hundreds of people to play his video game designed to collect bias. Players are shown a series of photos. When a photo of a man appears he is either holding a gun or a cell phone. The player's job is to shoot the gun-toting bad guys but not shoot the cellphone holders. I doubt you will be surprised to learn that players were quicker to shoot gun-holding black men than gun-toting white men. And they were slower to press the 'don't shoot' button if the black man was holding a cell phone. As soon as the game shows a photo of a white man the brain is already a tad bit on the 'cellphone' side, or conversely if they see a black man their brain is a leaning a bit on the 'gun' side, Joshua's research shows.
It is likely I found this book so compelling because of the times we are living through right now. Biased news organizations and politicians are saying things which are firing up their base. These people are then reacting to the news based on the stereotypes perpetuated by the officials. I had an interesting (red, bad) Facebook conversation recently with someone who compared the Black Lives Matter protests to the siege on the Capitol in Washington, D.C. The siege was okay because the BLM protests were worst was his logic. It turns out that there is a stereotype against activists, even if the activists are marching for something good like the environment or equal rights! "A 2013 study showed that people think of feminists and environmentalist as eccentric, angry, and dirty. These stereotypes actually reduce people's willingness to change."
Fortunately Chapter 5, the last chapter, talks about ways to rewire the brain to reduce or eliminate stereotypes. Obviously training and repetition help. Sometimes systems need to be altered to help eliminate bias based decisions. There are some quick fixes that help, too, like recognizing how hunger or tiredness impact our moods. There are no easy answers. I like the example of the man who figured out a way to tame racist slurs. He would send a message bot to the person, "Hey man, just remember that there are real people who are hurt when you harass them with that kind of message." If the bot was a white person (persona) with a lot of followers, the racist took notice. "When a racist tweeter received a rebuke from one of Kevin's white-guy, high-follower bots, the users racist tweets dropped by 27% the following week." I think the message here is that we can influence change toward positive change.
I wish I had had this book when I was teaching high school sociology classes. I can really picture the experiments we could do as a class.
What I liked about this book:
- It is very readable with sub-headings and lots of great examples. It is illustrated and reader friendly.
- The topic is an important one right now.
- It is short, 88 pages, but has a lot of useful notes and references.
What I didn't like about it:
- It looks like one of those school-y books, so librarians may have to talk readers into checking it out.