Your Mind Is Playing Tricks on You
Photography by Chrystal Scanlon
“We want to change the way people think about the way they think,” says Ryan Wynett, learning lab specialist at the “Open Your Mind: Understanding Implicit Bias” exhibit at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
Wynett says the goal of the exhibit is to open people up to “new ideas, new perspectives and new experiences” to help them understand how discrimination happens. “Over the last several years, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center has become increasingly aware of how implicit biases shape not only individuals’ attitudes and beliefs, but also the degree to which they can affect explicit behaviors, even without their knowledge.”
The study of implicit bias (the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions and decisions in an unconscious manner) is a relatively new sociological research focus, but Wynett says the body of evidence already uncovered has been compelling. “A growing consensus among researchers that implicit biases can be a very powerful predictor of future behavior, in many cases providing a far more accurate forecast of a person’s future behavior than would that same person’s self-report of how they are going to behave in the future.”
The new exhibit was made possible in part by a partnership with the Ohio State University’s Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. Wynett says focusing on implicit bias bolsters the Freedom Center’s overarching mission to change discriminatory behavior. While many exhibits at the museum have a powerful yet clear and tangible message about discrimination, the implicit bias lab goes below the surface.
“Advances in science and technology have opened up an entirely new world of discrimination, which takes place outside of conscious awareness and intent,” he says.
Some museumgoers are surprised by their results when they go through the exercises at the lab, but Wynett says others are simply surprised it’s taken modern science so long to officially recognize something they’ve long known about. “What has been pretty uniform across age, gender, race and ethnicity demographics is the enthusiastic reaction to how we connect implicit bias with the science of the brain and how the brain is hardwired to spot differences and limited in its ability to be fair and ‘equal’ in its treatment of others,” he says.
Wynett says a guiding vision for this learning has been thinking about it as “The Magic School Bus Visits the Unconscious Mind.” He says people embark on a deep dive into the world of the unconscious brain so they can see how the brain is wired in ways that often make it difficult to see things that are the same, as the same. “This is not because we’re bad people,” he says. “It is because we are human beings, forced to navigate a very complex world with a brain with very limited resources that’s forced to take shortcuts.”
Participants who take part in the exercises can expect to spend between 15-45 minutes that include viewing a series of visual illusions that show how things aren’t always as they seem, answering riddles aimed at introducing people to the idea of “illusions of social perception,” and taking part in the Implicit Association Test and associated exercises. Wynett says the exhibit can hold meaning for kids as young as fifth grade.
Wynett wants people to understand that “Open Your Mind” is not to “clue people in to yet another way to feel bad about themselves.” He says it’s not about finger-pointing or judging, but about understanding how the brain works and how, while the brain does a phenomenal job of navigating the world most of the time, it can still occasionally get things completely wrong.
“I tell people every day they should feel no worse about having implicit bias then when they try to exit the learning lab by yanking on the handle of the ‘PUSH’ door,” he says. “It’s the same parts of the brain.
“Perhaps the best exhibit takeaway we’ve heard came from a (rising) high school senior from Tipp City, Ohio, about a month ago. When asked what the exhibit taught her, she said, ‘Well what I learned today was that while I may be a very accepting person, my brain might not always be.’ That, in a nutshell, is the sentiment we’d like for people to walk out of ‘Open Your Mind’ having.”
“Open Your Mind: Understanding Implicit Bias” is sponsored by the Coca-Cola Foundation and Procter & Gamble.
The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is located at 50 East Freedom Way, Cincinnati, OH 45202.For more information, call 877.648.4838 or visit www.freedomcenter.org.