Photo courtesy of NYU Tisch / tisch.nyu.edu

Ann Pellegrini Presents on the Limits of Unconscious Bias

Ann Pellegrini was invited to speak about the implicit or unconscious biases involved in many legal cases, as well as the historical background and precedents behind them, on November 18, 2021.

“No matter how unbiased we think we are, our brains are hardwired to make unconscious decisions,” Pellegrini explained, “and because we all do this, we often see life and evaluate evidence in a way that tends to favor people who are like ourselves or who have had experiences like our own.” 

Pellegrini began her talk by discussing this subject on the legal level, focusing on how implicit bias is seen in court even today. Since the judge in any court case is meant to be impartial, they are often given the role of “judge-doctor,” with the responsibility to provide a verdict as well as a diagnosis. The psychological doubling of the crime results in the psychological analysis of the criminal, which is important when looking at biases in the legal setting.

Beginning with a recent example, Pellegrini brought up the case of George Floyd’s murder. In this court case, the idea of unconscious biases had to be explained with the example of gender-based stereotypes rather than race-based ones, which could have been seen as evidence for swaying the jury in a case that had to do so much with race. 

“Advocates for behavioral realism believe that making law consistent with the most recent thinking and social and cognitive psychology will help law to ameliorate discrimination,” Pellegrini elaborated.

Turning to a historical standpoint, Pellegrini then addressed the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education. This case held that the racially segregated schools violated the 14th amendment guarantees of equal protection under the law. Referring back to the psychological biases that influenced the decision of Brown v. Board, Pellegrini referenced the “doll study” in which children had to choose between two dolls that were identical except for the skin color. Almost every result yielded a favor towards the light-skinned doll, while darker-skinned dolls were associated with negative emotions.

“Chief Justice Earl Warren cites this famous doll study to underscore the negative psychological and educational effects on black children. Segregated schools generate this sense of inferiority, in Warren’s words, that affects the motivation of a child to learn,” Pelligrini stated.

While Brown v. Board of Education was a success in overthrowing Plessy v. Fergusen’s “separate but equal” law, segregation was still implemented in practice in many places despite no longer being legal. 

A lot of the underlying reasoning behind the Brown v. Board decision had to do with the period of the Cold War and keeping up American appearances worldwide. The verdict for this case was seen as redefining Americanism, changing the appearance of a nation still caught up in whiteness. Brown v. Board was able to serve white interests as well, in addition to advancing modern psychology.

In more recent years, diversity training has become more and more common in the workplace and in schools. Especially with the murder of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter protests, and other activism across the U.S., more attention is being paid to the inequalities that so many people still experience due to their skin color.

“More and more white Americans have been paying attention – why? Because so many people were at home because of the pandemic,” Pellegrini stated.

However, during Donald Trump’s time as president, he passed laws that banned diversity training in the workplace, which was a setback across the nation. Despite the Biden administration’s immediate reversal of these laws, the precedent that Trump created inspired many republican states to take up their own laws that didn’t encourage diversity training.

“The executive order reforms ominously to a disruptive ideology grounded in misrepresentation of our country’s history and its role in the world… According to this executive order, an analysis of how white supremacy is structured into U.S. laws, institutions, and everyday life is equated with white supremacy itself,” Pellegrini articulated.

There are too many trends recurring from the time of Brown v. Board of Education to present-day, where implicit bias is as much of a problem as explicit racism woven into U.S. law. However, with the increased awareness coming out of the Black Lives Matter protests that gained traction in 2020, there is an increase in willingness to put an end to this unconscious stereotyping and racism.

Coffee addict, aspiring world traveler, and lover of The Beatles.

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