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Northwestern study minimizes racism one nap at a time

I think of myself as a feminist. I actually have a podcast that celebrates women in science.

So who knew even I could have an unconscious bias against women in science?

Well, Ken Paller, for one.

He’s a psychology professor at Northwestern University, and he says no matter how open minded you think you are, you harbor unconscious stereotypes.

“We might use those stereotypes as a shortcut sometimes,” Paller said.

“If you meet a new person, you don't know them yet, you might look at their external appearance and make judgment about what they might be and what their personality might be like. That can be a mistake. It can be a difficult shortcut, but yet it's a common shortcut that people make.”

The official term for those shortcuts is implicit social bias, and Paller said we all have at least a little bit of it. Paller told me about a test you can take online to measure your own bias.

So I took it.

And I found out that I have a moderate automatic preference for men in science over women in science.

When I think about it, that makes sense. I’ve always considered the humanities to be more feminine, and the sciences to be more masculine.

I know that’s irrational, but it’s more common than we might think.

Dana Bozeman in her office in downtown Chicago. (WBEZ/Greta Johnsen)
One Sunday afternoon, I met up with Dana Bozeman, a friend of a friend who said she was willing to take the test with me and talk about her results.

Bozeman is African American. Like me, she was a little nervous to find out what her subconscious tendencies were.

But more than that, she was curious. She decided to find out how biased she might be about race.

“Ok, here we go,” she said with a deep breath.

Ten minutes later, after a sort of matching game, Bozeman read me the outcome of her test.

“Your results: Your data suggest a moderate automatic preference for European Americans compared to African Americans,” Bozeman read with narrowed eyes.

She shook her head. “I’m not terribly surprised.”

Bozeman said she wasn’t surprised because she sees negative media coverage of black people everywhere. And that sometimes makes her feel negative toward black people.

Feeling that way completely goes against her own values.

But Paller, the psychologist at Northwestern, says that kind of dissonance is also completely universal.

“Virtually everyone has an implicit social bias for race and gender,” Paller said.

“We pick it up from the media, from our inculturation over many years. So these are longstanding habits. And we wouldn’t expect to change them overnight.”

Treating bias during sleep

The thing is, Paller’s team did change them overnight.

Or at least, during an afternoon nap.

Paller knew that all sorts of experts have been using the Implicit Association Test, the same one Bozeman and I took, to reduce bias. What he wanted to find out was if he could help make somebody less biased on a long term basis by using sleep, and some very specific sounds.

Here’s how he did it: First, he’d measure people’s bias by having them take the implicit association test. It’s almost like a matching game.

When I visited the lab, I played around with it. It was NOT easy. You have to push certain keys as quickly as possible, and your response time is measured by the millisecond. Test subjects play the game over and over, trying to get faster at making the connections that defy their own stereotypes.

Paller and his team were testing for two stereotypes: gender bias, and racial bias. Every time subjects played the game for gender, and connected science words with women,  they’d hear a unique sound. When they connected positive words with the faces of African Americans, they’d hear another tone. Then, while the subjects are curled up in a tiny room to take a 90-minute nap, Paller and his team reinforced the learning that just happened by playing one of those two sounds over and over again. A subject would hear the sound in his or her sleep more than 100 times.

The theory is, if people heard the same sound while they slept, they’d better remember the training they just learned.

And it works.

Paller, whose expertise is memory storage during sleep, says when we’re lying in bed, we might seem to be at rest, but our brains are still hard at work, filing away memories and ditching information we don’t need.

“A lot of complicated brain processing is happening during sleep. It’s not like your laptop, when you shut it off to sleep and nothing happens,” Paller said.

“Instead, the brain is continually processing information and we’re trying to understand what’s happening when that memory processing is happening.”

By playing those sounds while a subject slept, Paller was able to reinforce the positive stereotypes. And there were signs that it could actually last.

Fighting bias in everyday life

What all this means for real life is that we have to be more in tune with our own negative stereotypes, and then keep resetting them.

Dana Bozeman, the woman who took the bias test, says her results will make her reconsider her own thoughts and actions.

“I think I also think about it for my children,” Bozeman said.

“I recognize that...they have a lot more positive images that I have…. I mean, my children were born in 2006 and 2008. So to them, the president’s always been black.”

Experts say you can think of implicit bias as a bad habit.

Every time you catch yourself thinking or behaving against your values, you have to stop yourself and try to correct it.

They say that means intentionally seeking out, and interacting with, people with different experiences and backgrounds from your own.

The Northwestern study, called Unlearning implicit social biases during sleep, was published in  the journal Science earlier this year. It was coauthored by Xiaoqing Hu, James Antony, Jessica Creery, Iliana Vargas, and Galen Bodenhausen.

Greta Johnsen is a reporter and host for WBEZ. Follow her @gretamjohnsen.

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