Faulkner’s Grip on Psychology

“The old fierce pull of blood.” – Faulkner

Literature helps us understand human nature. Disciplines designed to do so are not always so good at it. Sometimes, indeed, they seem counterproductive. “Buried Prejudice”, an article by Siri Carpenter in Scientific American Mind (via A&L), argues that “[e]ven our basic visual perceptions are skewed toward our in-groups. Many studies have shown that people more readily remember faces of their own race than of other races.” But to Carpenter (and the researchers summarized) the tension between our understanding of truth and justice (transcendent ideals that also pulled Faulkner’s young hero, Sarty) and our feel of the tribal (which he feels mixed with “despair” and “grief”) is not the tension between feeling and thinking, the biological and the rational. Our culture has slowly developed institutions to restrain the tribal passions central to our earlier survival but detrimental to a more diverse and larger society. But, Carpenter describes a group of researchers who have found (“[u]sing a variety of sophisticated methods,” that we “unwittingly hold an astounding assortment of stereotypical beliefs and attitudes about social groups: black and white, female and male, elderly and young, gay and straight, fat and thin.” (The word “astounding” is telling.) Of course, this is not always helpful – say, in sitting on a jury – when we link (as Jesse Jackson implies he did in the catchy intro) “black” with “danger”.

Some links come from experience. For instance, Carpenter is critical of the link between ‘frail” and “female.” Perhaps I’m unusual, I don’t know. But I threw the shot put in high school and was willing to bike miles to work; still, I tend to ask my husband to do the heavy lifting. Isn’t that the deal? Isn’t he heavier, taller, and more muscular than I am because, well, he’s a guy? Why the hell wouldn’t someone tend to link “female and frail.” Should we have lobotomies? Carpenter acknowledges: “One of the questions that people often ask is, ‘Can we get rid of implicit associations?’ ” says psychologist Brian A. Nosek of the University of Virginia. “The answer is no, and we wouldn’t want to. If we got rid of them, we would lose a very useful tool that we need for our everyday lives.” But, the difficulty comes from “associations that contradict our intentions, beliefs and values. That is, many people unwittingly associate “female” with “weak,” “Arab” with “terrorist,” or “black” with “criminal,” even though such stereotypes undermine values such as fairness and equality that many of us hold dear.”

Of course, making us self-conscious helps us counter such tendencies; an example are doctors who became self-conscious and worked against any bias to prescribe differently to different ethnic groups. We have wills and we can make choices; some, we hope, are for the general good. This example suggests “that recognizing the presence of implicit bias helped them offset it.” Being self-conscious, trying very hard to be objective is surely a step toward maturity, objectivity, allegiance to a truth that stands alone. Avoiding the appearance of impropriety is an acknowledgement of the need to “offset” our own tendencies toward subjectivity. (This is the core of rules governing, say, nepotism. And we understand why.)

This process, however, is likely to lead to either cynicism or the necessity of washing our brains of our very ability to look unblinkingly at the truth if the end is to argue women aren’t, generally, weaker than men. That is, however, a minor irritation. It is the result when we blink at human nature, at a nature apparently beyond the reach of these scientists’ imagination. The pull of the blood, of the “tribal”, is powerful and biological. Any “treatment” that ignores those passions – ones that have served us well in the past, that, indeed, serve us well in the present – is not likely to work. Those allegiances need to be transcended at times in a larger society; concepts like truth and justice exist and attempts to reach them should transcend familial/tribal loyalty. (Faulkner emphasizes the two-dimensional, “tin” sound and “tin” look of Sarty’s father whose imagination can not take in such ideals but only sees the world in terms of his own will – and his own ability to exert that will by “besting” others and the evidence of that will in the destruction that follows his steps.) Of course, this does not mean that loyalty to our parents, our children, and our “tribe” is not, quite often, a good thing. Still, I suspect, we will not easily breed such loyalties out of our selves and that the difficulty will continue to be restraining and balancing those passions.

2 thoughts on “Faulkner’s Grip on Psychology”

  1. “[e]ven our basic visual perceptions are skewed toward our in-groups. Many studies have shown that people more readily remember faces of their own race than of other races.”

    Actually, this has nothing to do with race but rather with experience. I recall that this idea was refuted by studying Americans Caucasians raised in Japan. They were just as able to identify individual Japanese faces as were native Japanese.

    Each ethnic group has features which vary the most from individual to individual. Visual identity depends on those features. For example, all Japanese have straight black hair so keying on hair color is pointless. Instead, they key on skeletal features such the distance between the eyes.

    Stereotypes, good and bad, are hardwired into the brain because the brain creates statistical descriptions of reality. It creates conservative models designed to foster the survival of the individuals not to make them ideal individuals in the developed societies of the 21st century.

    We have two levels of response. At the individual level, we have to constantly monitor our own thoughts and decisions to make sure we’re not making decisions based on cognitive distortions. On the social level we need to foster an open, free-market, merit driven society so that people who cling to irrational prejudices receive constant negative feedback.

  2. Shannon, you took the words out of my mouth. After living in Asia for 2 years, I can reliably tell what nationality a person is by facial features about 65% of the time. If they move and I can watch their mannerisms, that shoots up to about 85%.

    As a kid, all Asians looked similar to me.

    My kids were afraid of Caucasian women and Asian men in their shy stage (somewhere in the 1 year mark) because they saw me and my wife at home and thought that men were supposed to be Caucasian, and women were supposed to be Asian. It was uncanny how they responded to people who looked “right” versus people who didn’t.

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