Online harassment

Harassment online is a big problem. Legal remedies have limitations. It’s worth gaining ideas from nonviolent action.


One of my friends told me about a time, years ago, when she was stalked by a former student who threatened to kill her. The police could only recommend driving home using a different route and being cautious. She is pretty tough and is a politically aware feminist, yet she worried about what he might do to her or, if he turned his attention elsewhere, to someone else.

One of the difficulties in dealing with stalking is that, to outsiders, it doesn’t seem so bad. So what if someone comes by your neighbourhood and watches from a distance or shows up when you’re shopping? If he hasn’t physically touched you, what’s the problem? Until you’ve been stalked yourself, or talked to friends who have been, it’s hard to appreciate the terror it can cause.

These days, physical stalking has been overshadowed by an online version of the same problem. Stalking is just one version of a wider set of abuses that can be called harassment, bullying or mobbing. As with old-fashioned physical stalking, the online versions are often not treated as seriously as they deserve.

The most comprehensive and authoritative treatment of this problem is Hate Crimes in Cyberspace by Danielle Keats Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland. Based on years of study and interviews with dozens of victims, Citron’s book is a call to arms.

 Hate crimes in cyberspace cover

The experience

To give a sense of the patterns and impact of cyber harassment, Citron uses three case studies. One involves a female law student who, for no apparent reason, started becoming a target of abusive, threatening commentary on blog sites, including lies about her test scores, sexual behaviour and mental problems. What happens in cases like this is that after a public attack begins, lots of people join in, turning individual bullying into collective mobbing.

Her employment prospects were diminished because many potential employers look online to check out job applicants; when they see derogatory material, they seldom seek to verify it, instead just passing over the applicant in favour of someone about which there is no adverse material.

The attackers went beyond abuse, seeking to wreck the student’s life and career. They wrote to her employers making all sorts of false, damaging claims, and also made false claims about her husband.


            Another one of Citron’s case studies involves a woman who became prominent as a blogger, discussing software design. Simply by being a woman commenting in a male-dominated technological field, she became a target of massive abuse, including death threats, rape fantasies and the like.

The third case study is of a victim of revenge porn. This woman’s ex-partner posted nude photos of her on various websites, plus her contact details. An online profile falsely stated she wanted sex for money. This and other posts led to a barrage of unwelcome attention. Her boss and colleagues received photos by emails that seemed to come from her.

These three case studies, with many details (but not names), provide powerful testimony of the damage that can be caused by online abuse. Citron supplements these with a range of additional examples.


            Several factors contribute to the prevalence of cyberharassment. One is the online disinhibition effect: when people are anonymous, or just feel anonymous and separated from their target, they are less inhibited in what they say. The tech blogger received mountains of online abuse but none face-to-face. Another factor contributing to cyberharassment is that many people, including attackers, police and judges, do not think it’s a big deal. Attackers often say, “It goes with the territory” and police may recommend avoiding it: “Just don’t go online.” This is like telling a victim of street assault not to go outside.


Citron offers two revealing comparisons, with sexual harassment and domestic violence. Decades ago, these were not seen as issues of importance. Sexual harassment was seen as something women at work just had to accept, and likewise domestic violence was invisible as a social issue. Then along came the feminist movement. Sexual harassment and domestic violence were given names, stigmatised as wrong and even contemptible and criminalised by the passing of laws.

Citron says cyberharassment should be treated the same way. In all three forms of abuse, women and men can be victims, but women are much more likely to be targeted.

In Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, Citron gives most attention to legal remedies. She examines existing US laws for prospects of using them against cyberharassment – mostly the experience has been that they are useless – and recommends law reform and education of police and judges. She also recognises the importance of cultural change, including via interventions with Internet firms and in families.

 Danielle Keats Citron
Danielle Citron

Options in Australia

Citron’s focus is on the situation in the US, and she closely examines US court decisions and legal doctrine, especially concerning the protection of free speech in the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Online harassers often defend their actions as exercising their own free speech. Citron shows, through a careful analysis, that it is possible to legislate against cyberharassment in ways compatible with the First Amendment. Her discussion is a fascinating tour of US free-speech law, much of it showing the sophistication of court judgements.

first amendment

            In Australia, however, this analysis is largely irrelevant, because there is no explicit constitutional protection of free speech, only an inferred and quite limited area of protection. In Australia, then, there is no constitutional barrier to passing laws against online harassment. Paradoxically, though, far less has been done in the legal domain than in the US. This may be because legal remedies are more a consequence of cultural change than a driver of it. Furthermore, laws sometimes give only an appearance of protection.

I remember when, decades ago, the issue of sexual harassment came onto the agenda for Australian universities. At the Australian National University in the mid-1980s, two groups were set up, one to address complaints, the other to raise awareness. I was in the awareness-promoting group: we wrote and distributed leaflets, wrote articles and gave talks. Then, in 1986, I obtained a lectureship at the University of Wollongong and joined the sexual harassment committee when it was formed that year; the same differences in function were apparent. Over the next decade there was considerable effort to raise concerns about sexual harassment and a related issue, abuse of trust and conflict of interest when academics had sexual relationships with students.

In those years, there was considerable attention to sexual harassment. But then the issues dropped from the main agenda. At Wollongong, the sexual harassment committee was abolished in 1998. The formal procedures remained, but efforts to generate awareness declined. Sexual harassment continued, but less was done to alert new cohorts of students and staff about the problem.

My experiences with sexual harassment committees made me sceptical of formal procedures as the primary tool for addressing problems. In many cases, official processes served to keep problems from being publicised. My special interest remains in helping people acquire knowledge and skills to deter and resist abuse.

Nonviolent action and cyberharassment

Citron, although emphasising legal remedies, also canvasses other options. One of them is individual resistance by exposing attacks. Some targets have courageously made public statements describing abuse and denouncing it. This is a potentially a powerful response, generating awareness and stimulating support, but sometimes it leads to the abuse becoming even more intense. Harassers are outraged when victims refuse to acquiesce, and are especially angry when their aggression, and sometimes their identity, is exposed.

In Australia, Emma Jane has undertaken in-depth research into what she calls “e-bile,” which incorporates various forms of online abuse and harassment. Her special interest is online misogyny, and the increasing prevalence of threats to women of rape, torture and murder. Like Citron, Jane is disappointed with institutional responses, and as well decries academic studies that minimise or ignore the serious impacts. She acknowledges that direct action by targets, called vigilantism, sometimes can be worthwhile, but argues that collective responses to change policies and cultural attitudes are necessary too.

To help judge when open resistance is likely to be effective, it is useful to turn to experience with nonviolent action against injustice, using methods such as rallies, strikes, boycotts and sit-ins. One option is using some of these techniques against groups that enable or tolerate cyberharassment. A possibility would be organising protests or boycotts of companies that advertise on sites refusing to restrain attacks. However, obtaining sufficient leverage to promote change might be difficult.

Another option is to apply the general approach of nonviolent action to a different domain, cyberharassment, where there is seldom any physical violence by harassers (though the threat of violence is routine). Naming and shaming harassment and harassers can be considered analogous to nonviolent action against a violent opponent.

Gene Sharp is widely considered a pioneer thinker about nonviolent action. His 1973 book The Politics of Nonviolent Action describes 198 methods of nonviolent action. It also presents a set of stages or elements of nonviolent campaigns. The first stage he calls “laying the groundwork”, which means building awareness, organisations and skills, all before taking action. The next stage Sharp calls “challenge brings repression”: campaigners take (nonviolent) action against the opponent, knowing that their open resistance may trigger a repressive response. The third element in Sharp’s framework is “maintaining nonviolent discipline”: if activists use violence, this helps to justify their opponent’s use of superior violence. By refusing to use violence, campaigners build greater support. Sometimes the opponent’s violence can trigger a huge increase in popular support, a process Sharp calls political jiu-jitsu.

he 1960 Sharpeville massacre in South Africa triggered international condemnation: it backfired on the government.

            This framework can be applied to responding to cyberharassment. An individual who is being harassed might be courageous to go public about it, but to be effective it may be better to lay the groundwork first, by collecting more evidence, building ties with other targets and with opponents of harassment, and preparing a strategy. Only when fully ready psychologically and organisationally is it time to openly resist, in what Sharp calls “challenge brings repression”. An increase in attacks should be expected. The challenge then is for everyone involved to remain composed and not respond in kind. At this point, anything that seems like a counter-attack, for example a legal action or exposing private details about harassers, should be avoided so it is completely clear to neutral observers who are the aggressors. The possibility then is that further harassment, if exposed, might lead to a huge increase in support.


            For an individual, this may involve considerable sacrifice: standing up to abuse remains risky. Therefore, it is wise to act as part of a supportive group, with links to a wider movement.

For those willing to take the risk, it’s possible to learn from research on nonviolent action about how to increase the effectiveness of resistance. Activism against cyberharassment is vital in changing cultural attitudes. Future generations may be the primary beneficiaries of efforts today to openly resist abuse.

Brian Martin

Thanks for Sharon Callaghan for valuable comments.

The surgical sugar pill

You have an accident and fracture your collarbone, so you go to a surgeon who operates to fix the fracture. After you recover from the surgery, you feel better. So you and the surgeon think the operation was a success. What could be more straightforward?


            But wait a minute. Perhaps you would have recovered just as well without surgery. You went to the surgeon just after the accident, when the pain was at its worst. What would it have been like if you had let the fracture heal on its own? Perhaps the surgery was unnecessary.

Some medical researchers have carried out studies to determine whether particular surgical procedures have any benefit. A comparison between surgery and no surgery can be revealing, but still it doesn’t capture the possibility that having surgery makes you think you feel better, even though it didn’t do anything.

One study randomly assigned patients with pain from osteoarthritis in the knee into two groups. In group 1, patients had arthroscopic surgery, a minimally invasive technique, to remove arthritic spurs from the knee. In group 2, patients had arthroscopic surgery without removing spurs: the surgeons made the incisions in just the same way as for group 1, but didn’t do anything else. Guess what? Patients in both groups improved, by about the same amount. The study showed that this particular surgical procedure had no therapeutic benefit over a fake or sham surgery.


            A placebo is a treatment that has no therapeutic effect. Instead of taking a pill containing a drug, instead you take a pill that you think contains the drug, but actually it just contains sugar or some inert substance. If you get better from the sugar pill, this is called a placebo effect.

In the study of arthroscopic surgery for arthritic pain in the knee, patients who received the sham surgery got better: this was a placebo effect of surgery. The study showed that the only benefit of the real surgery was a placebo effect too.

If you want to learn about this topic, read Surgery, the Ultimate Placebo by Ian Harris. It is clear and often engaging treatment by an experienced surgeon who has done research on the effectiveness of surgery. Harris thus is ideally placed to address the placebo effect in surgery. Indeed, he admits to having carried out many of the surgeries he now believes are no better than placebo.

Ian Harris
an Harris

            The first part of his book is a careful explanation of the placebo effect, and why it is so powerful in surgery. The placebo effect is often thought of as purely psychological: people think the treatment will make them better, and this actually makes them better. But the effect is more complicated than this. One key factor is that most people get better anyway, without any medical or other intervention. They go to a surgeon when they’re feeling worst; after surgery, they gradually feel better, but that might have happened anyway.

Harris makes a strong plea for carrying out research that compares surgery with alternatives, including no treatment, physiotherapy or some other therapy. Furthermore, the research has to be rigorous, because if patients, doctors or researchers know who is getting the “real” treatment, for example the arthroscopy that removes bone spurs, this will taint the results through various forms of cognitive bias.

Because of various forms of placebo effect, there is a long list of treatments used by surgeons that provide little or no benefit while causing serious harm. The problem is just as great in other medical specialties. Harris addresses surgery more than others because he knows it best.

placebo pill

            For thousands of years, doctors treated all manner of illnesses by bloodletting. They mistakenly believed disease was due to problems in the blood, so getting rid of it was the solution. Most patients recovered despite this harmful practice, so bloodletting continued. There were no double-blind trials in those centuries.

However, bloodletting is only an anomaly in that it persisted so long. Since then, there have been dozens of therapies that became standard, yet there was no good evidence that they worked better than placebo. Harris provides an illuminating survey of such useless or harmful medical treatments, and then examines many currently popular surgeries, casting a sceptical eye over ones for which the evidence is thin or non-existent. Among them are back fusion surgery, surgery for multiple sclerosis, hysterectomy and caesarean section.

Harris provides descriptions of the rationales for such surgeries, including biological plausibility and trials (without comparison with placebo), as well as reasons why the evidence is inadequate. His discussions are readable; references are given in a bibliography.

Then Harris tackles the reasons why ineffective surgeries continue to be done. This is a social analysis, and includes factors such as self-fulfilling prophecies, the pressure on surgeons from patients to act rather than do nothing, and financial incentives. Most disturbing is that most surgeons do not want to subject their operations to experimental comparison with placebo surgery.

Harris says that many surgical treatments become standard practice before they have ever been rigorously tested for effectiveness. Then, when researchers propose a comparison with placebo surgery, surgeons claim that this would be unethical, because there can be no benefit to the patients randomly assigned to the placebo operation. Harris spends considerable effort countering this objection, arguing that actually it is more unethical to continue with thousands of operations for which there is no good evidence of effectiveness.

Achilles tendon rupture: surgery?

            Part of the problem is a double standard in relation to research and clinical practice. Researchers, to undertake a study, have to submit their proposals to review boards that examine the ethics involved. However, surgeons can initiate a new approach to a condition without any scrutiny. As Harris notes, asking patients how they feel after an operation requires ethics approval but undertaking the operation does not. The result is that many new surgical treatments become common practice without any good research to back them up, and rigorous studies are deterred by the ethics approval process.

“There is no restriction on what surgical approach a surgeon uses to do an operation, so what we have is a situation where it is deemed unethical to find out the results of a new procedure and publish them (without prior approval), but it is deemed ethical to do the procedure and not publish the results.” (p. 228)

Harris has been presenting his views to surgeons for some time, and many of them are resistant. They present all sorts of arguments to continue their usual surgical practice. One of them is that if there’s a placebo effect benefit from surgery, well that’s fine. “Believe it or not, this is a commonly used argument: if people are getting better after surgery anyway, that’s great – the fact that the placebo group also got better is no reason to stop doing the surgery.” (p. 235) Harris subjects this view to withering criticism, saying that performing ineffective operations is deceptive, costly and harmful.

da Vinci surgical system
Robotic surgery: better?

            Then there is the question of what to do about ineffective surgery. Harris has advice for patients, doctors, researchers, funders and society at large, all sensible. But change will be difficult due to patient expectations, the self-interest of surgeons, and entrenched double standards concerning clinical practice and research.

Ultimately, Harris is committed to a scientific approach, and wants it applied to surgery just like it is applied to alternative therapies, about which he is dismissive. “I applaud the work of sceptical societies, but they have one flaw: they rarely (if ever) turn their scepticism towards mainstream medicine. I guess it would muddy their attacks on alternative medicine and their position that mainstream medicine is science-based” (pp. 270-271).

Harris has rare courage: he is someone on the inside willing to cast a critical spotlight on professional business as usual. In writing Surgery, the Ultimate Placebo, he is taking his criticisms, usually presented in scientific forums, to a general audience. It will be interesting to see whether this succeeds, as he hopes, in speeding the uptake of scientific findings in surgery. In the meantime, anyone contemplating surgery can benefit from this readable and informative analysis.

Surgery, the ultimate placebo

Brian Martin

Stick with it

Willingness to keep trying is crucial to success, even more than talent.

 stick with it

When you decide to do something, do you persist even when it seems hopeless? Or do you shift to something else that seems more doable? Here’s a simple set of ten questions:

This little questionnaire has remarkable predictive value. For example, in studies of US high school students, scores on this questionnaire can better predict success in college than scores on standardised tests like the SAT. In studies of which military recruits complete West Point’s extremely challenging Beast Barracks, answers to this questionnaire are more predictive than any other measure, including high school grades, test scores and leadership experience.

The researcher who came up with this questionnaire is Angela Duckworth, and she calls what is measured “grit”. It is a combination of two attributes, passion and perseverance. “Passion” may not be quite the right word, because it suggests emotionality. What’s involved is consistency: sticking with the same challenge over time.

 Angela Duckworth
Angela Duckworth

Duckworth has been researching this area for years, with a number of collaborators, and her papers are regularly cited in commentary about achievement. Now she has written an accessible book explaining her research and findings, titled Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. It is engaging, informative and inspiring.

“In sum, no matter the domain, the highly successful had a kind of ferocious determination that played out in two ways. First, these exemplars were unusually resilient and hardworking. Second, they knew in a very, very deep way what it was they wanted. They not only had determination, they had direction.” (p. 8)

As Duckworth’s work became better known, for example through her talks, she was contacted by all sorts of people interested in pursuing excellence, for example the coach of the Seattle Seahawks professional gridiron team. In this way she learned even more about grit and how to develop it.

grit hand

            Grit, to a large degree, is learned. Parents can encourage their children to persist, and Duckworth devotes a chapter to grit and parenting. Another way to develop grit is through observing role models. I was greatly influenced by my initial PhD supervisor, Bob May. I helped him with calculations for a model of how interactions between voters influence outcomes and he generously made me a co-author. But getting the paper published was a challenge. Bob sent it to a top political science journal where it was roundly rejected by several referees, but Bob was not deterred, writing to the editor challenging the referees and demanding a new round of refereeing. When this led to another rejection, he tried another journal with the same results. When he left Sydney University for Princeton, I took over the submissions and the paper was finally published. The lesson for me was never to give up on a paper, at least not on one saying something worthwhile. My record is having a paper published after rejections by 14 journals.

One of the lessons from grit research is that, in the long run, it is not beneficial to be protected from failure. Individuals who seem to have a charmed life, always succeeding at whatever they do, may come unstuck when eventually they run into serious obstacles.


            Duckworth’s research ties in with that from related areas. Carol Dweck looked at people’s “mindsets.” People with a fixed mindset believe performance is determined by innate talent and will be discouraged by failure because it implies they lack talent. In some cases they will not attempt a task, or drop out of a competition, because they fear failure. On the other hand, people with a growth mindset believe performance depends on effort. When they fail, they try to figure what to do to improve in future. People high in grit usually have a growth mindset.

Anders Ericsson has studied what it takes to become an expert performer, arguing that world-class performers inevitably have to spend thousands of hours in a special type of practice called deliberate practice. He is yet to find anyone who can play chess, do mathematics, play the violin, do the high jump or undertake any other highly skilled activity at elite levels without years of dedicated practice. To persist in the required effort and overcome obstacles and plateaus in performance requires grit.

Young female rock climber at sunset, Kalymnos Island, Greece

One way to develop more grit is to develop a new skill and stick with it for a couple of years. Duckworth undertook studies of US high-school students and how well they performed at university, looking in particular at extracurricular activities such as sport or music. Students who spent at least two years in such an activity later showed more grit, even when it was in a different area. In comparison, students who tried out a whole range of activities but didn’t stick long with any of them had no advantage. The implication is that persisting with a new activity for at least a couple of years is useful training in grit that can provide benefits later on in a different area.

“Teachers who, in college, had demonstrated productive follow-through in a few extracurricular commitments were more likely to stay in teaching and, furthermore, were more effective in producing academic gains in their students. In contrast, persistence and effectiveness in teaching had absolutely no measurable relationship with teachers’ SAT scores, their college GPAs, or interviewer ratings of their leadership potential.” (p. 232)

Luckily, it’s not necessary to pick a challenge at age 5 or 15 or 25 and persist against obstacles ever after. Having grit doesn’t mean always striving in the same area. If you spend years training to be a skier but sustain a permanent injury, then it makes sense to switch to a different goal. Having grit doesn’t mean persisting against insurmountable obstacles. In fact, part of being successful in achieving a goal is to rethink strategies when necessary. After multiple rejections of my article, I might well have chosen another option such as publishing it on my website or turning it into a chapter in a book.


What’s wrong with grit

Grit sounds great, but it does not automatically lead to positive outcomes because not all goals are worthwhile. Becoming a successful criminal certainly requires persistence in the face of obstacles, but this is a case of grit for a harmful goal, at least harmful for the criminal’s victims. Furthermore, just because some achievements are socially valued does not mean they are unquestionable. Duckworth gives the example of grit as a key to success in military training, but anti-war activists would argue that grit would better be turned to campaigning against military methods. Duckworth also gives the example of grit in rising to the top of corporate hierarchies. Advocates of workers’ self-management would prefer to see grit deployed to promote greater worker participation and flatter organisational structures.

Unfortunately, those with the most money and power are in the best position to take advantage of grit research. Duckworth, to her credit, wants everyone to know what’s involved. Although she has consulted with top executives and sports coaches, she also has tried to help disadvantaged children and she has written the readable book Grit. If you care about injustice, you can learn from Grit how to be more effective.


 Brian Martin

Subtle prejudice

Many people sincerely believe they are not prejudiced. Research shows, though, that subtle prejudice is quite common. Furthermore, getting rid of it is very difficult.


There are all sorts of prejudice, on the basis of race, religion, gender, sexuality, age, occupation and various other characteristics. Some people are overtly prejudiced, for example expressing antagonism towards gays or refusing to say hello to neighbours of another nationality. However, many types of prejudice are less acceptable than before. In some circles, racist language will alienate listeners.

But can you be prejudiced even if you think you’re not? There’s a way to find out whether you have this sort of subtle, unconscious prejudice. Take the Implicit Association Test (IAT). But let me warn you. If you like to think of yourself as unbiased, be prepared for a possible shock when you take the IAT.


Actually, there are many versions of the IAT, covering race, gender, age and other dimensions. Let’s say you take the age IAT. You look at faces of people and, as quickly as possible, classify them as young or old. You look at words and, as quickly as possible, classify them as good or bad. Then you look at interwoven sequences of faces and words, and classify them the same way. The online IAT calculates how long it takes you to do these tasks. If it takes you longer to respond to certain sequences, the implication is that you have an implicit bias against old people. It’s very common, and worldwide.

If you want to learn more about subtle prejudice, read the book Blindspot by Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald. It’s about the IAT and much more. Greenwald developed the IAT; Banaji was his student and has collaborated with him for many years.


The disturbing finding is that most people who believe they are unprejudiced are actually biased, unconsciously. Greenwald and Banaji admit they are too, even though they wish they weren’t.

Banaji is from India and was dismayed to discover, via the IAT, that she had an unconscious bias against non-whites. The IAT reveals that many women hold, unconsciously, the gender stereotype of male = work, female = family. Many US blacks have an unconscious bias against blacks, and so forth.

Mahzarin Banaji
Mahzarin Banaji

How could this be? The two-minds model of human mental functioning  helps explain. According to a standard view in psychology, humans have two minds, in other words two independent mental systems. One is the rational mind, used for much conscious thinking. It is slow, careful and requires effort. The other system is the intuitive mind, which operates rapidly, automatically and usually out of consciousness.

When you meet someone new, your intuitive mind rapidly classifies the person in terms of categories, including sex, ethnicity, age and social status. This happens out of conscious awareness. This automatic classification process can also result in judgements and changes in behaviour.

The IAT, by requiring rapid responses, taps into the intuitive mind and its biases. Conscious effort by the rational mind is required to overcome automatic responses, and the more effort that is required, the slower your response. The slower response is detectable and used to assess your level of bias, perhaps none but perhaps more than you expect.

As Blindspot‘s subtitle – Hidden Biases of Good People – suggests, Banaji and Greenwald are concerned about people who want to be unbiased, and who usually believe they are unbiased, but who actually have subtle prejudices.

You might want to dismiss your results on the IAT as not reflecting anything serious. Countering this, Banaji and Greenwald report on a large amount of psychological research showing that IAT scores correlate with prejudicial behaviours. But the bias in behaviour is subtle, so people – “good people” in Banaji and Greenwald’s terms – do not realise it is occurring.

Some experiments involved white students being approached by an interviewer, either a black or a white woman, on a neutral topic. A videocamera covertly recorded each interaction. Nonverbal indicators of the subject’s friendliness or discomfort were judged by independent assessors. A typical finding is that most white US subjects respond more positively to white interviewers.

African American woman taking an interview of a woman
African American woman taking an interview of a woman

Another experiment involved leaving a stamped, addressed and unsealed envelope in an airport phone box. On looking inside at the contents, a photo of the writer is hard to miss. White subjects are more likely to seal and post the envelope if the writer is white rather than black. The differences in response are not all that great, but enough to show a correlation between IAT scores and behaviour.

Dozens of clever studies of this sort show that subtle bias is common and that it affects behaviour, often with drastic effects. Banaji and Greenwald say that today subtle, unconscious bias may be the prime source of unfair discrimination in the US, overshadowing overt prejudice in its effects. Subtle bias is all the more potent because it is unconscious and hence unrecognised.

One of the issues addressed by Banaji and Greenwald is support in the US for measures to make up for historical disadvantage. Although a majority of whites disavow racial prejudice, a majority also thinks the playing field is now level, so extra support for disadvantaged groups is not needed. This can be interpreted as the expression of unconscious prejudice.

Because of the attention to the rights of minorities in recent decades, many US whites now believe they are suffering from adverse discrimination. Because their own prejudice is unconscious, their views about social injustice are opposite to what is shown by the evidence. Banaji and Greenwald provide a detailed appendix about black disadvantage in the US, giving ample evidence that it is real and significant.

Anthony Greenwald
Anthony Greenwald

Why unconscious prejudice exists

You might imagine that good intentions, or personal experience, would be enough to overcome unconscious bias. How could a career woman like Banaji hold an unconscious stereotype of female being associated with family rather than career? Why would a capable older person unconsciously accept negative stereotyping about old people? The answer is in cultural stereotypes that we imbibe from many sources.

In studying history, we read a lot about leaders, especially heads of state. Most of them are men, and a large proportion are white, at least for US people studying US history.

Mount Rushmore
No black or female faces on Mount Rushmore

In US television news, most reporting is about the US, and hardly any is about sub-Saharan Africa. As a result, it is easy for the intuitive mind to become attuned to white faces and not easily differentiate black ones.

In Hollywood productions, there are embedded assumptions about gender, age, social class, crime and a host of other social dimensions. Though not all shows have the same implicit message, the overall effect of watching thousands of hours of Hollywood entertainment is to implant associations and assumptions into many viewers’ minds.

The result is that stereotypes become deeply embedded. Think “surgeon” or “soldier” and the mental image of a white man may be automatic.

The messages of culture, including media, buildings, textbooks, ceremonies and much else, shape the unconscious, intuitive mind. The IAT probes the prejudices of this mind.

What to do

In Blindspot, Banaji and Greenwald devote considerable attention to the challenge of overcoming unconscious prejudice. They assume that “good people” would prefer to be unbiased and, if they knew about their unconscious prejudices, would like to change them.

However, changing the intuitive mind is not easy, especially when culture is continually fostering and reinforcing unconscious stereotypes. Banaji and Greenwald are not optimistic about trying to change intuitive responses. So they pursue a different approach: avoiding or sidestepping unconscious prejudice.

A good example is marking essays without knowing the identities of the students. In this way, unconscious biases about gender, ethnicity, appearance and personality are avoided. The same approach is used by editors of some scholarly journals when soliciting peer reviews: the author’s name and other identifying information are removed from the paper. Though reviewers sometimes can figure out the identity of the writer, the intention is to reduce the influence of conscious or unconscious bias.


However, this sort of blinding has limited applicability. In the workplace, a person’s gender and ethnicity cannot easily be disguised.

An initial step is for more people to become aware of their own unconscious biases. It can be disconcerting, even distressing, for a consciously fair-minded person to discover prejudice lurking in their intuitive mind, shaping their behaviour without revealing any trace to consciousness. Accepting that this can occur, though, can unleash creativity and energy in redressing culturally induced blindspots.

Recognising that it is difficult for individuals to overcome their own unconscious biases, there may be better prospects for groups of concerned individuals working together with a shared intent of developing ways of reducing prejudice.

A radical alternative

Prejudice is damaging psychologically, and also when it affects people’s job opportunities, promotions, housing options and other material aspects of life. It seems difficult to deal with hidden prejudice because judgements by others are so central to success in life.

This can be seen as a flaw in the connected systems of meritocracy and inequality. The usual idea of meritocracy is that people rise or fall in their station in life depending on their capacities and achievements: those who do better on tests get better grades and advance further through formal education; those who are more qualified and experienced get better jobs; those who do better work are promoted; those who generate new ideas receive recognition. Inequality in society is justified by belief in the merit principle: those who earn more money or become famous deserve their privileges because of what they’ve done.

The problem is that meritocracy is a myth. People often get ahead because of having wealthy parents, good luck, social advantage such as knowing the right people – and prejudice. Inequality due to birth, luck, connections or prejudice is simply unfair, and not justified by merit.


One way to nullify the impact of prejudice (and the role of birth, luck and connections) is to move to a more egalitarian society. At the workplace, instead of having huge pay differentials, most workers could receive the same pay. Or, more generally, everyone in society could be guaranteed the same basic income. With such a system, the impact of prejudice on income would be greatly reduced.

The existence of subtle prejudice can be used to motivate thought experiments. If we imagine that unconscious bias is widespread and virtually impossible to overcome at the psychological level, then the question becomes, how should society be organised so this unconscious bias has minimal consequences? There are some radical possibilities. For example, instead of electing politicians, members of decision-making groups could be chosen randomly.

Banaji and Greenwald say that figuring out how to overcome unconscious bias “may require some thought.” That thought needs to include radical alternatives.

Brian Martin

Thanks to Emma Barkus, Anu Bissoonauth-Bedford, Trent Brown, Rae Campbell, Kathy Flynn, Xiaoping Gao and Alfie Herrero de Haro for useful comments on drafts.