jennifer-eberhardt

Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt

Thinker

Intro

Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt is a psychologist who has dedicated her career to illuminating the implicit prejudice that guides people’s behavior and decision-making processes. Eberhardt is at the forefront of behavioral psychology, examining how bias is embedded in everyday actions and informative of people’s actions. Eberhardt is especially interested in the effects of unconscious racial bias: how people’s implicit ideology affects racialized people.

Eberhardt conducts innovative experiments that guide law enforcement agencies and state officers to eliminate bias. She moves across and within disciplines, working directly in the trenches and drawing data from courtrooms, boardrooms, and police departments to complement her state-of-the-art laboratory research.1 Eberhardt’s ability to translate complex behavioral scientist phenomena into actionable change makes her an important activist who believes proper knowledge and training can help society overcome unconscious bias. While bias and negative stereotypes are problems created by all people, not by just a few bad apples, Eberhardt has hope that the solutions rest with people as well.

Bias is not something we exhibit and act on all the time. It is conditional, and the battle begins by understanding the conditions under which it is most likely to come alive.

– Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt in her bookBiased.2

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The Other-Race Effect

Spurred by her own experience moving from a predominantly Black neighborhood to a predominantly white neighborhood, Eberhardt has demonstrated the “other-race effect.” The other-race effect suggests that people have difficulty telling people apart who are of a different race than themselves.3 This effect is evidenced by brain activity in the fusiform face area, the part of our brain involved with recognizing faces.4

For example, in Oakland, California, middle-aged women in Chinatown experienced a mini-crime wave of purse snatchings from Black teenagers. When questioned, the teenagers claimed they targeted Asian women because these women would not be able to tell them apart in a lineup.3

Eberhardt has shown that the other-race effect is a product of exposure. The more exposed people are to different races, the more able they will be to tell people apart, which is why people do not usually have trouble differentiating people of the same race.3 Because popular media outlets, like television, magazines, and advertisements, underrepresent minority races and overrepresent white people, the other-race effect has less impact on racialized people trying to differentiate between white people and more impact the other way around. The other-race effect can cause racist ideologies like a belief that all Black people are the same, which can perpetuate stereotypical conventions, for example, linked to violence and crime.

In recent years, it has also been found that the other-race effect is embedded in and reinforced by technology. A growing body of research has shown that face recognition algorithms often fail to recognize non-white people.5 While the impact of technology’s other-race effect starts with something as small as an iPhone not being able to properly distinguish between Black people – and perhaps give the wrong person access to the phone – the consequences quickly escalate when face recognition technology is used by law enforcement. If technology cannot properly recognize Black faces, a Black person may be denied at airport passenger screening or could be mistaken for a different sought-after Black criminal.6

Bias in Stereotypes

Stereotypes – a generalized belief about specific categories of people. They are useful tools that help us digest the infinite amount of information we encounter on a daily basis. As Eberhardt writes in her book, Biased, “We cannot possibly take in all of the stimuli with which we are constantly bombarded. Based on our goals and our expectations, we make choices – often unconsciously – about what we attend to and what we do not.” 2

However, stereotypes can also cause undue bias and prejudice when they impact our perception of people from particular races. Racial profiling happens in people’s minds as early as three months old; babies at this age already show a preference for faces of their own race.4

Eberhardt’s interest in how stereotypes impact people’s treatment of others occurred accidentally as she was studying cognitive psychology during graduate school at Harvard.7 She was presenting on the fundamental attribution error, a cognitive bias through which we overemphasize the impact of personalities in situations. To demonstrate the bias, Eberhardt asked two of her fellow classmates to come up with ten questions for two other classmates to answer.

Due to the fundamental attribution error, when people are asked whether ‘quizmasters’ (those who designed the questions) or the contestants (those who answered) have better general knowledge, people tend to rate the quizmasters as more knowledgeable because they downplay the situational factors at hand – like the fact that they got to choose the questions. However, as Eberhardt asked the rest of the class to rate the knowledge level of her participants, she found that the fundamental attribution error wasn’t being replicated. She realized that it was because her quizmasters were Black women, and the contestants were white men. Stereotypes of both women and Black individuals were behind her classmates’ opinions.7

In later research, Eberhardt continued to find that racial stereotypes impacted people’s perceptions. One of her studies demonstrated that police officers associate Black men with crime. Half the police officers in her study were primed with words like ‘apprehend’ and ‘capture’ before they saw two pictures side-by-side: one of a white male, and one of a Black male. The other half of the police officers did not see any priming words first. Eberhardt found that those officers who had been primed with words associated with crime spent more time looking at the Black male, suggesting the association between crime and Blackness.3

Implicit Bias in Criminal Justice

About a year ago, the world was shaken by disturbing footage of a police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, leading to his death. Riots and protests broke out, with people suggesting the death was a product of deep systemic racism within the criminal justice system. Floyd became a global symbol of the need for change and criminal justice reform. Recently, officer Derek Chauvin was deemed guilty of the second-degree murder of George Floyd, among other charges.

On the back of growing activism, Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt’s insights into the unconscious racial bias present in the criminal justice system seems more relevant than ever. Racial stereotypes impact how we treat others. Unfortunately, oftentimes, stereotypes about Black people have dangerous and deadly consequences. For example, people believe that Black men are frequently involved with criminal activity, and therefore, Black men are likely to be treated differently by law enforcement. White police officers, who are trained to look for danger, come to associate Blackness with criminality, and perceive danger even where there is none.8

By analyzing data from police departments and national crime statistics, Eberhardt found that as a result of their implicit bias, police officers are significantly more likely to stop black people for ‘furtive movement’ (fidgety behavior that sometimes indicates nervousness) and more likely to kill unarmed African-Americans than unarmed white people.8 Evidently, acting nervous around police officers becomes an understandable vicious cycle with each additional innocent Black person’s death dominating national headlines.

Racial profiling and bias do not stop with police officers. Through her 2012 research, Eberhardt also found that people in the courtroom are influenced by unconscious prejudice towards Black people. The race of the defendant influences whether the jury believes they are to blame and the length and severity of their sentence.8

Specifically, Eberhardt found that if the victim and defendant in a criminal case are both Black, the jury tends to see the issue as an interpersonal one caused by differences in personal values, rather than a serious intergroup conflict.9 In other words, the case is belittled. When the race of the victim and defendant are different, however, the jury more often recognizes the issue as more than a personal squabble.

When the victim is white, Eberhardt also found that the race of the defendant impacts their likelihood of receiving the death penalty. People who fit racial stereotypes have double the chance of receiving the death penalty than those who look less Black. This ‘stereotypicality effect’ was only apparent when the victim was white, not if the Black defendant had killed a Black victim.10

Eberhardt’s research demonstrates that even when there seem to be fewer blatant bigots and explicitly racist views out there, subtle and implicit racial prejudices that have historically governed societal relations have not disappeared; they are unconsciously embedded in our perceptions of the world and those around us.

Historical Biography

Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt was born in 1965 in Cleveland, Ohio. There, she grew up with four older siblings in a mostly Black and lower income neighborhood. Soon enough, her family moved to Beachwood, a majority-white suburb of Cleveland.4 It was here that Eberhardt first experienced the other-race effect, life experience which she credits as the spark of her interest in studying race and bias. The move was very jarring for Eberhardt, despite the two neighborhoods only being a bike ride away, as she started to understand that her experience of life was very different from that of her mostly white classmates at Beachwood High School.

Originally, Eberhardt intended to pursue design at the University of Cincinnati, as she was looking for a career that would allow her to develop her creativity. However, she found the projects dull and unenjoyable. Eberhardt changed to a psychology major, and quickly fell in love with research and studies.12 She completed her undergraduate degree in 1987. Despite her passion for psychology, she was still unsure whether she should pursue psychology in a graduate program, inspired by other successful African-Americans she valorized who tended to be doctors, lawyers or engineers.12

Although she doubted her career choice, Eberhardt pursued a PhD in Psychology at Harvard. She completed her degree in 1993 and landed her first job as an assistant professor of psychology and of African-American studies at Yale shortly after. 12

Eberhardt moved to Stanford University in 1998, where she continues to work today as professor of psychology. She is involved in multiple different programs across the university, including her position as a research fellow at the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity, co-directing the Mind, Culture and Society specialization track for psychology undergraduates. Eberhardt is also a member of the Association for Psychological Science, the American Psychological Association, the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, and the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues.12

Eberhardt is also active in the criminal justice world in Oakland, and plays a key role in the reform of the historically toxic police department there.3 Eberhardt has also been awarded multiple prestigious awards. In 2002, she received a Distinguished Alumnae Award from the University of Cincinnati. In 2014, she won a McArthur Foundation ‘genius grant,’ awarded to researchers dedicated to building a more just society.3

Eberhardt is married to Stanford faculty member Ralph Richard Banks. The two have three sons and live in Palo Alto, California.13 Having her own family increased Eberhardt’s motivation to fight racial bias, as she saw first-hand how stereotypes are already concretized in the minds of young individuals. While on a plane when he was only five years old, one of Eberhardt’s sons pointed to a Black man and told Eberhardt that the Black man ‘looked like Daddy.’ The next sentence he spoke shocked Eberhardt – ‘I hope he doesn’t rob the plane.’ Eberhardt hopes that her research can cultivate a more just and equitable world with less racial stratification.4

Insights

Following her own uncertain path into psychology, Eberhardt has some advice for young academics. She states that “the most common mistake I see graduate students making is for them to begin conducting research in an area, simply because that area is ‘hot.’ It is really hard to do your best work when you are not completely passionate about it. So even though it may seem like the best choice or the most practical choice to invest in the ‘hot’ area, your most creative work, your most inspired work, is much more likely to happen in the area that you care about most.” 12

Eberhardt has realized that implicit bias does not only impact our perception of others, but it also influences how we perceive ourselves. She writes, in her book Biased, that “the power of the gaze of others to define how you’re seen in the world; it can shape the scope of your life and influence how you see yourself.”2 She reiterates her message, that “although we tend to think about seeing as objective and straightforward, how and what we see can be heavily shaped by our own mind-set.” 14

Her research has demonstrated that a lot of racial bias comes from a lack of exposure to different races. She has found that “people of all races who attended racially diverse schools are more likely to have friends of other races, choose to live and raise their children in integrated neighborhoods, and have higher levels of civil engagement than those who did not.” 2

She knows that integration is not always easy – “but living with diversity means getting comfortable with people who might not always think like you, people who don’t have the same experience or perspectives. That process can be challenging. But it might also be an opportunity to expand your horizons and examine your own buried bias.” 2

Eberhardt believes that the answer is not to get rid of bias because it is not possible to do so. Instead, it is about making our biases conscious so that we can manage them and not allow them to impact our behavior. As she claimed in an interview “bias is not a trait but a state. So, some situations make us more vulnerable to bias than others. And the more we understand this, the more powerful we are because then the issue is trying to figure out – what are the situations where bias is more likely to come up? – and to figure out how to avoid those situations, or how to brace yourself, or how to slow down in those situations.” 4

While “people always want to know how we can get over bias”, Eberhardt suggests that “bias is not something we cure, it’s something we manage. There’s no magical moment where bias just ends and we never have to deal with it again.” 4

Eberhardt is hopeful that our society can overcome its unconscious biases. She writes in Biased that “moving forward requires continued vigilance. It requires us to constantly attend to who we are, how we got this way, and all the selves that we have the capacity to be.” 14

Where Can We Learn More?

Only a year ago, Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt published a book that encompasses the ideas on racial bias she has devoted her career to developing. Her book, Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do, examines bias from a multitude of perspectives. How is bias created, maintained, and magnified? How does this occur on a personal level versus on an institutional level? In what areas is racial bias primarily seen? Eberhardt discusses findings from her research that help her not only answer these questions, but also provide tools through which we can overcome biased treatment of others.15 If you’d like a sneak peek into what the book entails, you can listen to Eberhardt talk about the book in the lecture she gave at the First-Year Experience conference in 2020.

Eberhardt was a guest on Trevor Noah’s popular program, The Daily Show. In April 2019, Eberhardt and Noah discussed the other-race effect and areas prone to unconscious racial bias. The episode can be found here.

If podcasts help you learn best, you might also want to listen to Eberhardt’s interview with Kara Swisher, host of the Recode Decode podcast. Eberhardt focuses on the biases embedded in modern-day technology, but also suggests ways companies can prevent their tech from inheriting racist ideologies. She suggests that tech companies can slow people down – for example, by using sludges, which make people think twice before performing an action.

You can find a list of all of Eberhardt’s seminars and lectures on this Stanford page. The most recent video is Eberhardt’s 2014 speech demonstrating her work with the Oakland police department and its impact in helping them address the deeply rooted biases of law enforcement.

References

  1. Dr. Jennifer L. Eberhardt. (n.d.). Penguin Random House Speakers Bureau. Retrieved April 21, 2021, from https://www.prhspeakers.com/speaker/jennifer-eberhardt
  2. Biased quotes by Jennifer L. Eberhardt. (n.d.). Goodreads. Retrieved April 21, 2021, from https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/62727435-biased-uncovering-the-hidden-prejudice-that-shapes-what-we-see-think#:
  3. Starr, D. (2020, March 26). Meet the psychologist exploring unconscious bias—and its tragic consequences for society. Science Magazine. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/03/meet-psychologist-exploring-unconscious-bias-and-its-tragic-consequences-society
  4. Eberhardt, J. L. (2019, March 28). Can We Overcome Racial Bias? ‘Biased’ Author Says To Start By Acknowledging It. Interview by A. Chang. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2019/03/28/705113639/can-we-overcome-racial-bias-biased-author-says-to-start-by-acknowledging-it.
  5. Johnson, E. (2019, September 3). Social media is the perfect petri dish for bias. The solution is for tech companies to slow us down. Vox. https://www.vox.com/recode/2019/9/3/20842654/jennifer-eberhardt-biased-social-media-nextdoor-racial-profiling-kara-swisher-recode-decode-podcast
  6. Najibi, A. (2020, October 24). Racial Discrimination in Face Recognition Technology. Science in the News. https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2020/racial-discrimination-in-face-recognition-technology/
  7. Scott, S. (2015, October). A Hard Look at How We See Race. Stanford magazine. https://stanfordmag.org/contents/a-hard-look-at-how-we-see-race
  8. Gross, N. (2019, April 26). Justice Is Blind. Sometimes, So Is Prejudice. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/26/books/review/jennifer-l-eberhardt-biased.html
  9. Wairimu, J. (2018). A reflection of Jennifer Eberhardt’s theories on the effects of racial biases in criminal justice. GRIN Verlag.
  10. Eberhardt, J. L. (2019, March 25). Jennifer Eberhardt: Bias in the justice system is real, and the death penalty reveals it. Twin Cities Pioneer Press. https://www.twincities.com/2019/03/25/jennifer-eberhardt-bias-in-the-justice-system-is-real-and-the-death-penalty-reveals-it/
  11. Jennifer Eberhardt. (2014, September 17). Wikipedia. Retrieved April 21, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jennifer_Eberhardt#Early_life
  12. Eberhardt, J. L. (2007, January 1). Champions of Psychology: Jennifer Eberhardt. Interview by APSSC. https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/champions-of-psychology-jennifer-eberhardt.
  13. Karazin, C. (2014, October 22). Gender Conflict. Beyond Black & White. https://www.beyondblackwhite.com/ralph-richard-banks-said-book-true-regarding-swirling-might-help-black-women-marry-black-men/
  14. Jadatnilla. (n.d.). Notes & Quotes: Biased by Jennifer L. Eberhardt. the Ripening. https://www.theripening.com/2019/11/notes-quotes-biased–jennifer-eberhardt.html
  15. Biased. (n.d.). Penguin Random House. Retrieved April 21, 2021, from https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/557462/biased-by-jennifer-l-eberhardt-phd/

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