Associating minorities with crime is irrational, unjust, and completely normal.

How your unconscious mind shapes you.
Oct. 25 2010 1:27 PM

We Are All Juan Williams

Associating minorities with crime is irrational, unjust, and completely normal.

(Continued from Page 1)

But even if blacks and whites do not commit crimes at the same rate, and even if Muslims are overrepresented among today's terrorists, our mental associations between these groups and heinous events are made disproportionately large by the unconscious bias that causes us to form links between unusual events and minorities.

The researchers Franklin D. Gilliam Jr., Shanto Iyengar, Adam Simon, and Oliver Wright once conducted a simple experiment that demonstrated how illusory correlations work: They showed volunteers a television news program that featured a violent crime. Some volunteers were shown a white suspect, while others were shown a black suspect, but everything else about the program remained identical. The volunteers who saw the black face were more likely to blame blacks as a whole for rising crime than the volunteers who saw the white suspect were to blame whites for rising crime. (The volunteers in the white scenario blamed that individual suspect for the crime.) The bias showed up among white as well as black volunteers.

People in Thailand will associate white American tourists with pedophilia even though many more acts of pedophilia are committed by Thais. But white Americans are a minority in Thailand, as are acts of pedophilia. So you will hear Thai people shout until they are blue in the face about individual anecdotes showing white Americans who are pedophiles. (The same is true of gay men and pedophilia in the United States.)

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When it comes to our associations between Muslims and terrorism, commentators on the left are being wishful when they imagine we can rid our minds of false associations merely by holding consciously egalitarian views. Commentators on the right are doing something much more dangerous, however: They are rationalizing and justifying a mental process that is fundamentally not rational and deeply unjust.

If you know there are 1 billion Muslims on our planet (low estimate) and you've heard of 1,000 incidents where Muslims carried out terrorist attacks (an exaggerated number), and terrorist sympathies were (improbably) distributed evenly across the world, the odds that a particular Muslim is a terrorist are about 1 in a million. A rational Bill O'Reilly should be much more exercised about asteroids striking Earth, or dying from dog bites, than about Muslims being terrorists.

The fact that so many of us subscribe to illusory correlations can be blamed on our unconscious minds. The fact so few of us challenge our unconscious minds? That's on us.

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Shankar Vedantam covers the social sciences for NPR. Follow him @HiddenBrain and on Facebook.

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