Mahzarin Banaji —
The Mind Is a Difference-Seeking Machine

The emerging science of implicit bias is one of the most promising fields for animating the human change that makes social change possible. The social psychologist Mahzarin Banaji is one of its primary architects. She understands the mind as a “difference-seeking machine” that helps us order and navigate the overwhelming complexity of reality. But this gift also creates blind spots and biases, as we fill in what we don’t know with the limits of what we do know. This is science that takes our grappling with difference out of the realm of guilt, and into the realm of transformative good.

Share Episode

Shortened URL


is Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics in the department of psychology at Harvard University. She is the co-author of Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, and co-founder of the implicit bias research organization Project Implicit.

Pertinent Posts

The hope for the future lies in the lyrics and the spoken words of Prince EA. See how wise and beautiful we are capable of becoming.

About the Image

Plaster casts of the faces of people from the Indonesian island of Nias on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Episode Sponsor

Share a Reflection



I'm interested in taking "your stupid test" as one of the students called a test your guest on this morning's show called what she gives her students to reveal their biases. Is it available on line? Thanks.

Annie Parsons's picture

Hi Richard,

Dr. Banaji's Implicit Association Test can be found here:

I think the lack of understanding what implicit bias causes a lot of conflict amongst individuals and the conflict begins with self...that is why I strive hard to implement conflict resolution strategies to youth... I truly enjoyed the radio talkshow !!!

I've been so grateful for the work of Dr. Banaji and others working on implicit association tests. As a civil rights advocate, I have been working to promote, create, and sustain racially integrated communities for years. Talking about implicit bias helps people recognized how they make decisions based on racial biases that they often would not otherwise admit they had. It is a chance for us to reexamine ourselves and reflect on how to make change intentionally.

I listened to Krista Tippet's interview with Mahzarin Banaji on WAMU radio this morning and found the discussion very interesting. I was surprised that Ms. Banaji did not mention the co-author of "Blindspot" during her responses to Ms. Tippet's questions. Perhaps I missed mention of this. Thus, if I had not done any research afterward, I would have believed that Ms. Banaji was the sole author of the book.

The discussion reminded me of a book by William Sargant (Battle for the Mind) that I read many years ago as a graduate student of history. I was doing research into the German Communist Party (KPD) in the 1930s and was very interested in how the Nazis managed to convince so many people of different social and cultural backgrounds to accept their interpretations of political and social reality and used fear of Communism as a goad to get millions to subscribe willingly or subconsciously to their tenets.

At one time I took the test that she spoke about in her discussion. It was very interesting.

I am not convinced that shame and guilt are as conducive to understanding as she seems to think they are. When I was a young person and a practicing Christian, I bought into the idea of guilt as a major motivator of human behavior. As I grew older and moved around the world, living in Islamic and other non-Christian countries, I came to see guilt as a terrible hindrance to developing one's own sense of self. I read about Buddha and Zoroastrian faith (when I lived in Iran) and knew well a number of Parsi families in Bombay when my family and I lived there. My Christian beliefs were challenged but served me as a basis for examining other beliefs. In traveling around much of India (except Secunderabad and Hyderabad), I learned that there were many different societies in India with different belief systems and perceptions of the world. I learned that most educated Indians were multi-lingual unlike most Americans and that this gave them a wider perspective on tolerance and acceptance of different peoples and cultures. Ms. Banaji comes from such a society and has been able to bring her values and those of her parents and other family members with her to her work at Harvard. Thus, her research and her teaching are challenging some of our deeply held beliefs and cultural assumptions.

Harvard began as a Christian school for boys and young men. It took centuries for its leaders to open up and accept women and people of other faiths (Jews for example). It remained a temple of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant beliefs for much of its existence. Now it seems to have gone in a very opposite direction in which any contrarian idea that challenges current "political correctness" is considered dangerous and to be rejected. Ms. Banaji alluded to this in her discussion.

In India I also saw that there was widespread prejudice and intolerance (especially between Hindu and Muslim) as there is in the United States. Ms. Banaji's research aims at analyzing factors underlying prejudice and intolerance. Her statement that when she finally understood something it meant that she had to act upon her understanding may be valid for her, but countless numbers of people act on their ignorance and are easily stirred up by demagogues of various stripes. Thus, in her discussion with Krista Tippet I missed a more extensive examination of the role that ignorance plays in human motivation and behavior.

I was listening to your episode entitled "The Mind Is A Difference--Seeking Machine" and I was struck by three notable omissions:

1) There is NO discussion of the internationally best-selling book USER ILLUSION by Tor Norretranders about the scientific experiments of Benjamin Libet and his famous conclusions concerning the UNCONSCIOUS MIND which Mahzarin Banaji was explicitly making the conscious focus of her "Blind Spot" discussion.
2) How I short-circuit ALL racial biases quickly, easily and totally.
3) What to do when there is an actual & REAL threat posed, not by prejudice, but by facts.

First of all, the findings of the Benjamin Libet's experiments show that the Conscious Mind processes information at about 30 bits/second while the UNCONSCIOUS Mind processes information at bout 11 MILLION bits/second. To make the imbalance even more lop-sided the Conscious Mind requires a half a second to get "on-line" whereas the the UNCONSCIOUS Mind only requires 1/50th of a second. HOWEVER, our memories always record that we were CONSCIOUSLY aware of the situation a half a second before the Conscious Mind actually came "on-line", hence the "USER ILLUSION". The example that I use to exemplify this imbalance is President Jimmy Carter. Jimmy Carter gave PLAYBOY magazine an Interview. PLAYBOY being PLAYBOY asked Jimmy Carter if he'd ever had LUSTFUL thoughts for women other than his wife Roselyn, to which Jimmy Carter responded that yes he had, but as a Born-Again Christian he CONSCIOUSLY strived against such thoughts and prayed to Jesus for help. When the results on Benjamin Libet's experiments became available twenty years later, it became clear how useless not only Jimmy Carter's Conscious volition was, but also how useless were his Prayers to Jesus. Even though Jimmy Carter's memories of these LUSTFUL encounters put his Conscious Mind completely in control of the situation, in scientific fact it was Jimmy Carter's UNCONSCIOUS Mind that was siting in the driver's seat a half a second BEFORE his Conscious Mind was even aware that there was a "situation". Neither Jimmy Carter's Conscious Mind nor , apparently, Jesus had any thing to do with the "situation". Our Conscious Mind for the most part only exist to VETO thoughts & actions already initiated by the UNCONSCIOUS Mind. The Conscious Mind exists to make us adhere to the social conventions. In this example say that Jimmy Carter started to leer at the sexy woman. As his lips curl upward, the Conscious Mind becomes aware of the situation and his religious prejudices wipe that smile off his face and he's immediately filled with inappropriate Christian GUILT. {Note that I personally have theorized that if Jimmy Carter had directed his attention to his very REAL UNCONSCIOUS MIND instead directing it to his imaginary friend Jesus, he might have been able to "change" his UNCONSCIOUS Mind through Auto-Suggestion. I also theorize that these Auto-Suggestions must begin with two specific words.}

Secondly, the easiest way to subvert racial prejudices is to use scientific fact. In DEEP ANCESTRY by Spencer Wells "Eve" was born 170,000 years ago in Northern Kenya and "Adam" was born 110,000 years LATER also in Northern Kenya. "Eve" & "Adam" belonged to the ancient & original tribe of humans called the San Tribe. {Remnants of the hunter-gatherer San Tribe exist in the Kalahari Desert; they worship a shape-shifter God called "Kagen" and may have been behind the construction of the oldest temple on Earth, Gobekli Tepe 11,000 years ago in Southeastern Turkey} So if you follow the genealogical family tree of any human being now living on planet Earth, it will end in Northern Kenya with the San Tribe. "Black people" aren't EQUAL to "White People", Black people ARE White people, and Brown People and Red People and Yellow People. It turns out that humans aren't color-coded like electronic resistors. Of course historically some people had already figured this out when they noted ALL of these so-called "races" can interbreed (as Thomas Jefferson & Sally Hemings famously proved). Unfortunately scientific evidence isn't accepted by a great many religious bigots who haven't "understood", as Mahzarin Banaji would put it, Richard Dawkins books THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH and THE GOD DELUSION {since you Krista Tippetts are being funded by the John Templeton Foundation, I'd guess that you also lack this "understanding"}.
3) Everybody has an opinion about the flood of Muslim "refugees". But instead of relying on the bigotry of early childhood indoctrination, I offer a more impartial "understanding". A "Muslim" is a "Muslim" BECAUSE a "Muslim" FAITHFULLY OBEYS the "Eternally Applicable" & "Flawlessly Correct" QURAN. The instructions in the QURAN are FOREVER. Some "moderate" Muslims, the Mu'tazilite Muslims, attempted a more rational approach to ISLAM and were slaughtered in the 9th century C.E. as "HERETICS". Present-day Muslims have taken this cautionary tale to heart. So when infidels, like you or me, question Muslims about their beliefs they are apt to take ALLAH's advice in Quran 3:28 & 9:1 and simply LIE TO INFIDELS. Therefore the best way to discover what Muslims are REALLY THINKING is to analyze the Quran itself. There are over 400 verses in the Quran on HATING infidels and over 100 verses on KILLING said HATED infidels; see the website "therelgionofpeace". Though this will doubtlessly offend your Pollyanna POLITICAL CORRECTNESS, I suggest that you, Krista Tippetts actually investigate what the QURAN says:

On HATING infidels in Quran 4:101, 98:6, 2:98, 46:29-35, 18:103-106, 14:18, 3:56, 3:85, 22:19-22, 83:34, 7:44 etc., & Quran 9:29-30 (on using the JIZYA Tax to "subjugate" infidels; also see the "Pact of Umar")

On NEVER BEFRIENDING infidels in Quran 48:29, 3:118, 4:144, 5:51, 9:23, & 58:22; HOW are Muslim "refugees" supposed to integrate into Western infidel societies when Muslims may NOT EVEN BEFRIEND any infidels????

On KILLING infidels Quran 9:1, 9:123, 9:5, 2:191-193, 8:39 (where the warfare with infidels only ends when ALL religion has become ISLAM), 4:101, 4:89, 5:33, 8:12, 8:57, 8:65, 8:67, 2:216, 4:95, 9:19-20, 9:38-42, 9:45, 9:88, 49:15, 61:10-12, 48:17, 47:3-4, 9:111, 9:14, & 47:35 etc. {NOTE that in Quran 9:67 & 9:73 & 3:167 & 33:60-62 & 66:9 ALLAH brands as "HYPOCRITES" all Muslims who do NOT risk their "lives" in MORTAL COMBAT fighting infidels, and DOOMS these "HYPOCRITICAL Muslims" to the SAME, ETERNAL, FIERY HELL that is reserved for garden-variety infidels} … and then FORCIBLY TAKING the infidel widows, mothers, sisters, and daughters for SEX SLAVES in Quran 4:3 & 23:6 … and then CLAIMING infidel lands in Quran 13:41 & 21:44 where ALLAH urges Muslims to constantly & ILLEGALLY encroach on all infidel borders, and ESPECIALLY Quran 33:27 where ALLAH gives to Muslims ALL infidel lands & territories EVERYWHERE on Earth! This summary usurpation of ALL infidel territories constitutes a TREASONOUS OVERTHROW of ALL infidel national treaties, ALL infidel national boundaries, and ALL infidel national SOVEREIGNTIES by the Muslims ALREADY RESIDING IN THESE COUNTRIES!! I, Tom Lang, recommend the DEPORTATION of ALL MUSLIMS as the TREASONOUS TRAITORS that the "ETERNALLY APPLICABLE" & "FLAWLESSLY CORRECT" Quran REQUIRES Muslims to be.

As Karl Popper pointed out, "If unlimited tolerance is extended to even the intolerant [Muslims], then the tolerant will be destroyed and with them tolerance itself."

Don't drink the Pollyanna POLITICALLY CORRECT Kool-Aid! Read/Google the Quran and DECIDE FOR YOURSELF!!

In conclusion I'd like to mention that the John Templeton Foundation attempted to PROVE the efficacy of Healing people with PRAYER. In a double-blind experiment the scientists working for the John Templeton Foundation showed that PRAYER had no effect on Healing people. Did that bunch of facts convince YOU, Krista Tippetts?

Probably not. As Thomas Edison said, "The great trouble is that the preachers get the children from 6 to 7 years of age, and then it is almost impossible to do anything with them. Incurably religious--that is the best way to describe the mental condition of so many people. Incurably religious." Religion is the BRAINWASHING of little children before they are old enough to know any better. Simply put, RELIGION is CHILD ABUSE.

Still not convinced? Good. As Thomas Huxley said, "Skepticism is the highest duty and blind Faith the one unpardonable sin."

Consider this:

"A blow to the head confuses a person's thinking; a blow to the foot has no such effect. This can NOT be the result of people having an immaterial soul." ---Heraclitus of Ephesus

"A soul? Give my watch to a savage and he'll think it has a soul." ---Napoleon Bonaparte

"No, I don't believe in God. I'm not a moron. I have to have some proof of something." ---Harlan Ellison

"INVISIBLE Pink Unicorns are beings of great spiritual power. We know this because they are capable of being INVISIBLE and pink at the same time. Like all religions, the Faith Of The INVISIBLE Pink Unicorns is based upon both logic and Faith. We have Faith that they are pink; we logically know that they areINVISIBLE because we can't see them." ---Steve Eley

The Gods are INVISIBLE because the Gods are NON-EXISTENT. ---Tom Lang

"A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that Faith does not prove anything." ---Friedrich Nietzsche

Now are YOU, Krista Tippetts, finally convinced? No? Then I regret to inform you that you are probably a BRAINWASHED True Believer. As Jonathan Swift explained, "It is useless to attempt to reason a person out of what they were never reasoned into" {through BRAINWASHING}.

I found Dr. Banaji's perspective very thoughtful and relevant to our greater western societies today. It is a wholesome approach to nuanced ways in which we all cary bias and prejudice in our daily lives. I would love to share this piece with friends however, I cannot find a transcript of the episode to share with those friends who are Deaf. Please direct me to the right place. Smiles.

I took a couple of your tests for a college course, and was delighted to have the opportunity to follow up that experience when this interview came on in my car. My heart was thumping when I heard about the experiment where you created fear by associating certain faces with physical discomfort... how we take so much longer to "heal" that association when the faces are of another race. You then warned that just because one lives in a diverse city does not make one immune to these associations because when we see "others" in situations that reinforce negative impressions, those experiences have a greater impact on our implicit biases as opposed to experiences that reinforce positive impressions. When we have access to diversity, we need to be active in our pursuit of "understanding."

I live in Oregon, where our Black population is a significant minority; Black classmates often commented that Oregon felt more racist (but in denial about it) than some of their hometowns where some people displayed blatantly racist attitudes. I wonder if this is because white Oregonians don't find themselves in situations where racial diversity can be appreciated and reinforced as a positive value in a community. Perhaps our implicit biases around race are based primarily on media depictions of Black Americans -- often negative -- and we don't have the same level of personal connection available to combat those biases.

Most dualistic philosophies are based on the premise of pluralism, which means to respect the differences. In Christianity - Catholic means all encompassing despite of the differences and they also believe in transcendence. Similarly the Indian dualist school is also based on the premise "tatvavaada" - the dialogue / debate of the differences; and again transcendence is revered.

People being intolerant or prejudices is an international phenomenon; when people make this observation being limited to a certain geography, religious belief etc then they themselves in a way seem to have fallen victim to their own cognitive bias and prejudices.

I am curious if my association on the later aspects of gender and career IAT where I created F (family, female) for my right hand response artificially sped up my response time!?

That riddle isn't just about implicit bias, but about some of the things that encourage and discourage it. I can't even listen to the riddle anymore because of how it starts... my children say "oh, Mom, come on, it isn't real" but my visceral response to "the father was killed right away and the son taken to the emergency room" is so upsetting, I stop caring about the riddle! I just want to keep from imagining this horrific scenario. It's too vivid. Too awful. I wonder what role this "set up" plays in priming our minds resorting to their most basic of biases?

Recd this for a friend

Thanks for the excellent interview - heard it on KCBX-FM San Luis Obispo (89.5 FM in Santa Barbara). Ms. Tippett was very knowledgeable and Dr. Banaji shared wonderful insights from her research. Lots of great common sense advice. Loved the riddle - I totally failed.

Having been reminded of the social psychology riddle ,of the accident and the surgeon parent,I posed this to some young people. The sweetest example of morality opening to all inclusiveness was the response-"The boys parents were two men." Though this leaves the implicit bias towards men fully intact,still it shows movement.

Like most of the interviews I enthusiastically listen to on this podcast, I really enjoyed this one. Intriguing information and helpful to be aware of.

I usually listen to the "unedited" version of the show because I like to hear the whole thing. I listened to the radio version of this first, then the unedited.

I am very disappointed about some of the editing done for the radio version. Several of her statements or stories are inserted into other, unrelated, stories -- for example, she made reference to the Airbnb topic and the comment "I do not like your face....", yet you inserted that in the radio version next to her response to a student (which is a separate story, although still about Airbnb). I am not a fan of chopping the content or taking comments out of context and am very surprised to hear this being done on the show.

When the bias riddle was mentioned regarding the surgeon whose son died my mind screamed 2016 election - voters just can't see a female president. Can you do press this question of sex bias before the election? Sadly, I feel that women are the worst culprits.

Marie C.

PS - i'm from Galway, Ireland and just listened to your interview of John O'Donohue. All I can say it that it left me breathless and awakened.

Thank you! Truly interesting. We really need to integrate all such research into the education system from the earliest age upwards!

Hello friends - I hosted a gathering for a dozen leaders from domestic violence programs in south central Washington state on Tuesday to talk about implicit bias. One of the directors over there asked me to put some materials together and facilitate a conversation - this was almost 6 months ago so the timing of this was quite happenstantial. I've never done this before, but I downloaded this Banaji interview and we all listened to it in its entirety and then discussed. People LOVED it and I could see lightbulbs going off all over the room. We spent the rest of the day talking about radical self-care, and political activism. Lots of dots connecting.
I love all of you and what you do SO MUCH and now more than ever I'll be needing you to bolster my resolve to find meaning, resist, and activate to counter the hate and fear. Thank you!