Opinion

We're not colorblind. The only thing we're blind to is our unconscious biases.

New studies show that referees call more penalties against players wearing black and judges issue harsher sentences to darker-skinned African-American women. If we can become more aware of our unconscious biases, we can use our logic thinking to override them.

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    Alleged police beating victim Ronald Weekley Jr. stands with his sisters outside his home after a news conference in Los Angeles Aug. 22. Op-ed contributor Jim Sollisch argues that 'we’re blind to...how instinctively biased we all are' and that '[w]e need to look for other ways to re-set the default. To level the playing field. And not just with race.'
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New research shows that sports teams wearing black jerseys get penalized for aggressive fouls significantly more than teams wearing white jerseys. The study, published in the May issue of the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science analyzed more than 50,000 NHL games. The additional penalties added up to more than two additional minutes per game. Another study conducted at Cornell University found a similar pattern in the NFL.

There is no shortage of possible explanations. But two cited in the study are particularly chilling when extrapolated outside the arena: First, the act of wearing a black uniform may make players more aggressive. And second, referees may have an unconscious bias against black and an unconscious preference for white.

In a society where sports are much more than a game, fans have to believe that referees are basically objective. Sports are built on a foundation of fairness. Middle school teams don’t play high school teams. There are divisions in college sports to adjust for school size. Professional teams that finish last get to draft first. You could easily make the case that sports are fairer than life. It’s not a stretch to suggest that if a rich person commits a crime, his chances of avoiding a serious penalty are higher than a star athlete avoiding a penalty in a game.

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So this study shook me up a bit. It got me thinking about the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case. And about human nature. And about the thousands of unconscious thoughts that guide our behaviors every day.

Daniel Kahneman, in his brilliant book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” demonstrates that we have two thinking systems. System One is automatic, constantly forming opinions and judgments based on whatever information it has. System One doesn’t perform logic tests; it has no checks and balances – it just reacts. This is the system that makes some of us afraid of people wearing turbans when we board a plane.

System Two, on the other hand, is conscious and rational – the system we call into action when faced with a difficult math problem. According to Mr. Kahneman, System One has a lot more to do with our daily behavior than System Two.

So Kahneman might not be surprised to learn that refs call more penalties against teams wearing black. He might not even be surprised by another study: Researchers at Villanova studied more than 12,000 cases involving African-American women sentenced in North Carolina. They found that woman with lighter skin received shorter sentences than women with darker skin, for the same crimes – 12 percent shorter. That’s more than a margin of error.

So if judges and referees – whose whole job descriptions hinge on making unbiased decisions – routinely act on unconscious stereotypes, what about the rest of us? Actions based on unconscious bias must be rampant. According to Kahneman, our System One brain evolved to keep us safe; it’s a sort of early activation system that signals our adrenaline. Clearly, a system based on instincts will naturally send out a lot of false alarms. That’s fine when our brains tell us to slam on the brakes – even if it’s just for a leaf – but it’s not so good when we’re blowing the whistle or pounding the gavel.

The good news is that if we can become more aware of these unconscious biases, we can use our System Two thinking as an override. The problem is we don’t activate System Two unless we realize there’s a need for it.

So if judges were instructed before sentencing to remember that studies have shown bias in sentencing based on skin color, they might literally think twice before handing out their sentences. Referees on every level are required to participate in continuing education classes. These could include some highlights from studies illustrating the bias against teams wearing dark uniforms.

We need to look for other ways to re-set the default. To level the playing field. And not just with race.

I’m 5' 8". If I were applying for a job as CEO, I might say something in my interview like, “I know I’m not tall enough to be a CEO, but I have some pretty big ideas.” It turns out, according to a survey by Malcolm Gladwell, that 30 percent of CEOs are over 6' 2". Which can’t be a coincidence when only 3.9 percent of the male population is over 6' 2". (And that doesn’t even address the bias against women making it to the top spot).

When Barack Obama became president, there was talk of a post-racial society, one blind to color. But the only thing we’re blind to is how instinctively biased we all are. If we can learn to see that blindness, there’s a chance we can learn to see more clearly.

Jim Sollisch is creative director at Marcus Thomas Advertising.

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