Jennifer Eberhardt: Seeing from the Periphery

Posted by: yetheart, March 5, 2019 1:34 am
Blog Image: 
Jennifer Eberhardt (Credit: Nana Kofi Nti)

Jennifer Eberhardt, social psychologist, Stanford University professor, and MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient, studies unconscious bias—stereotypes or beliefs that we form about groups of people without knowing that we have done so.

She says that most of her work involves making small tweaks to a person’s social or physical environment and then measuring the impact. But to understand how people respond in the moment, she needs to understand their history. For that, she believes, libraries are essential: “Libraries provide access to the societal narratives of the past.” Reading, she says,” keeps our minds and hearts open. It keeps us alive.”

Growing up, Eberhardt sensed her library was an awesome place, but she also felt that she had “no clue about how to access knowledge.” The powerful feeling of being inside and outside at the same time has stayed with her.

Her new book, Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do, is different from the peer-reviewed articles for scientific journals that she has typically written because it is for a broad audience and assumes no specialized knowledge. She explains that she discusses scientific findings “in a manner that not only people will understand, but feel inspired by. And the book is filled with the stories of ordinary people that help to breathe life into that science.”

Biased by Jennifer L. EberhardtFour books were influential as she wrote her new book: Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion (1922); Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952); Arthur Miller’s Focus (2001); and Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law (2017). Eberhardt’s book demonstrates that “we are all vulnerable to bias,” whether we are aware of it or not. It also reveals that bias “is a function of how our brains are wired, but it is also produced from our culture—from the social world to which we are exposed” and “triggered by the situations we find ourselves in.”

Her own experience with unconscious racial bias, she says, is as a scientist who studies it and a writer who attempts to help the world to understand it—but also as a mother who tries to protect her children from it.

Asked if being a woman has influenced her career, Eberhardt notes that “being a black woman has taught me the power of seeing from the periphery.” The thinkers who have most influenced how she does her research are not famous, but rather “everyday people living ordinary lives—sacrificing, striving, and serving as they do.” Women in science who have inspired her include two scholars of racial identity and interracial interactions—“Jennifer Richeson and Nicole Shelton, two young black women who burst on the scene in social psychology, did so together, and moved the field in their direction.”

Eberhardt recommends several strategies to reduce the potential impact of bias on our actions and decisions. First, slow down. In addition, “use objective standards to evaluate others, hold yourself accountable, create situations for positive contact with members of different racial groups, and think more critically about the narratives we have been taught about them.”

Eberhardt says that the MacArthur “Genius Grant”—a five-year award to individuals who show exceptional creativity in their work—changed her life: “It alerted people to my work and to the possibility of scientists playing a role in key issues relevant to social justice. It compelled me to do more.”

“Never lose hope,” she advises.

Biased will be published in March and will be available at Queens Library.

Photo of Jennifer Eberhardt by Nana Kofi Nti.

This is just one of the great stories you can read in the March/April 2019 issue of Queens Library Magazine. Other articles you may find interesting: