Investigating Bias: Interview with Dr. Jennifer Kubota

By Linzie Taylor

Image courtesy of pxhere.com

Biases are natural ways for our brains to process and store information. Within the context of social groups of belonging, this tendency for natural bias is used to sort and categorize people, often leading to stereotypes. Because we live within a society where these stereotypes are widely known, perpetuation of these biases happen in an implicit manner. Once we choose to become aware of the biases, we can see how it influences decision making.

Dr. Jennifer Kubota, Assistant Professor in the Departments of Psychological and Brain Sciences and Political Science and International Relations at the University of Delaware, received a joint PhD in Social Psychology and Neuroscience from the University of Colorado, Boulder, in 2010. Her postdoctoral research took her to New York University and Harvard, during which Kubota investigated neural mechanisms underlying prejudice. Her current work investigates intergroup interactions and how our impressions of others informs our decisions, thus making a connection between bias and how we operate within the world. She uses her foundational understandings of bias and impression formation to explore how biases can be mitigated to improve intergroup relations. Kubota’s work uses methodology that spans across the fields of neuroscience, psychology, and decision-making.

Kubota recently spoke at Emory’s Frontiers in Neuroscience seminar in November. Her talk was one of the most visited of the semester, indicating how much topics like prejudice and bias are on people’s minds right now. I previously posted a blog post detailing the prevalence of White, Western Individualistic Bias within neurotechnology. This interview serves as a way to delve deeper into the mechanistic underpinnings of bias and biased decision making. Kubota’s knowledge of prejudice offers a scientific and methodology-supported understanding of how biases influence our actions, thus building upon the philosophical understanding offered in my previous post. 

Q: What first drew you to researching impression formation and bias?

Kubota initially felt pulled towards social justice and political activism when she took a psychology course taught by Patricia Devine. Devine’s research explores stereotyping and prejudice and the neural underpinnings of these phenomena. Kubota soon volunteered in Devine’s lab to combine her neuroscientific interests and fascination with “how we form impressions of marginalized individuals and the subsequent effect this has on our decision making, thoughts, and feelings.” 

Kubota began integrating work on stereotyping and prejudice with research on affective neuroscience and decision making. She wondered how biases could influence real-world decision making. This curiosity brought Kubota to assess risks of interacting with persons who have different group of origins for each other. Questions like these shifted Kubota’s work to focus on the outcomes of bias-informed impressions. 

Q: Any unexpected paths your research has taken? Most surprising findings? 

Image courtesy of William Warby on Flickr

In the first social decision-making study Kubota conducted, she explored how people punish others for unfair behavior. This study was influenced by a real-world phenomenon, the financial crisis of 2008. Political parties were offering solutions that would harm themselves at the expense of punishing the other party, and thus the idea to test this within a laboratory setting arose. The study results shocked Kubota.

Within the study, participants were asked to play an economic game. The results showed that white participants punished Black individuals more compared to white individuals for their equally unfair behavior. This effect was seen even when punishing the Black individuals came at a greater financial cost to the participant. These results indicate that bias can be so consuming that people are willing to lose something of value to them (money) to punish someone else. 

Q: What happens when people are aware of how biases influence decision-making and actively work to correct this?

Kubota’s research shows that an individual’s response when actively working to correct biases depends on the individual’s motivations. Consider two scenarios (Person 1 and Person 2) in which others are watching. Person 1 is very internally motivated to correct their bias and believes in equity and fairness—so much so that bias correction has become automatic, spontaneous, and processed without real effort or awareness. Person 2, however, has more of an external motivation to correct their prejudice, so they are more concerned with how others will respond to their bias. When Person 2 encounters someone who has a different racial background from them, some anxiety is elicited. Since Person 2 does not internally value equity, they are less likely to have experience in correcting their own biases; when they are in a situation where they need to correct their biases spontaneously, Person 2 can’t.

People who are more externally motivated to correct their bias are often perceived by others as being suspicious, guarded, or anxious, says Kubota (LaCosse et al., 2015). When comparing an individual’s interactions with those who are externally motivated and those who were more explicit about their biases, participants rated the interaction with the external motivators worse than the outwardly prejudiced individuals. These results indicate that people can detect when someone is being disingenuous with their social interactions, i.e., when a person’s external motivations for not exhibiting prejudice do not align with their internal self-concept. When people are motivated to correct their own biases, the correction becomes a more unconscious process, more like a habit. Thus, within spontaneous, more anxiety-inducing social interactions, people true values and biases are betrayed. 

Q: So, is there such a thing as positive bias? 

Kubota says yes, but even stereotypes that seem positive can be harmful. The long-lasting effects of positive, in-group bias can still result in discrimination even if there is no explicit hatred of the outgroup present. For example, favoritism for one’s ingroup can result in unfair discrimination in  hiring decisions (Li, 2020) and perpetuate negative biases in the workforce. 

Q: How do you address your own biases when doing research? 

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

When reflecting on and addressing her own biases in doing research, Kubota emphasizes that it isn’t about being separate or disconnected from your research to show non-bias and – in fact – this perspective causes harm, as it discredits Black and Brown scientists who do this kind of work. That being said, it is important to be critical and reflective about one’s thoughts and feelings and how they might impact research.

The best way forward is to “focus on the data and adhere to the best practices in science.” She highlights the importance of designing experiments that disconfirm your findings because, out of a labor of love for the research, there is value in leaving no stone unturned – even if the results do not come out as you imagined. 

Q: How do you see your research influencing our society and culture? Where/who should use it, and how should it be applied?

In her earlier work, Kubota investigated the effect of implicit bias; however, her research is now beginning to focus on understudied explicit bias. In the past few years or so, there has been a shift towards researching those who have roots in white supremacy and other hate extremism, as well as the cognitive underpinnings of these beliefs. 

Kubota suspects that, in her lifetime, her research may not profoundly impact society and culture, but gradually – and in conjunction with other stereotyping and prejudice research – the tides will change. There’s no “magic band aid” that will fix this problem; it is a joint, long-haul effort by numerous scientists. 

Kubota believes that other scientists should use, replicate, scale, and put her work into different contexts so as to build confidence in the research. Building a strong foundation for this research will facilitate impact that can be efficacious and long-lasting in the real world. Critically, a wide variety of stakeholders must be involved with bias research, including community members.  

Science is a community effort, and solutions to societal problems result from the combined effort of many. Bias research has a long way to go before it can begin to provide solutions, but the importance and necessity of this work is what drives and motivates Kubota to go further. 


References

  1. Kubota, J. T., Peiso, J., Marcum, K., & Cloutier, J. (2017). Intergroup contact throughout the lifespan modulates implicit racial biases across perceivers’ racial group. PLoS ONE, 12(7), 15–17. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0180440
  2. LaCosse, J., Tuscherer, T., Kunstman, J. W., Plant, E. A., Trawalter, S., & Major, B. (2015). Suspicion of White people’s motives relates to relative accuracy in detecting external motivation to respond without prejudice. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 61, 1–4. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2015.06.003
  3. Li, S. X. (2020). Group Identity, Ingroup Favoritism, and Discrimination BT - Handbook of Labor, Human Resources and Population Economics (K. F. Zimmermann (ed.); pp. 1–28). Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-57365-6_123-1

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Linzie Taylor (they/she) is a doctoral student in Emory’s Neuroscience program.  Their research interests include investigating how race-based stress and chronic stress affect people’s neurobiology and how this intersects with psychiatric disorders such as PTSD. Linzie aims to develop a Black Feminist Thought informed neuroethical framework to apply to their research examining the neurophysiological and psychological influence of race-based stressors. Overall Linzie hopes to introduce Black Feminist Thought to neuroscience so that research is designed in a more inclusive manner at the induction of experimentation. 


Want to cite this post?

Taylor, L. (2021). Investigating Bias: Interview with Dr. Jennifer Kubota. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2021/04/investigating-bias-interview-with-dr.html

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