With the ideas42 Seminar Series, we invite leading scholars to share their insights and what inspires their exploration into human behavior. Our New York office was pleased to host Jack Cao, a 5th year PhD candidate in social psychology at Harvard University. Jack’s research examines the divide between the conscious values we try to uphold and the implicit biases that reside within the mind. Before starting graduate school, Jack completed his undergraduate studies at Cornell University and taught physics, chemistry, and biology in New Orleans, LA through Teach For America. After giving a talk to the ideas42 team, Jack was kind enough to share some of his thoughts on behavioral science:
Tell us about your work in studying behaviors and beliefs that relate to inequality.
We typically think about inequality in terms of disparities between social groups – men vs. women, or a majority population vs. a minority population, for example. I study inequalities within individual minds – that is, the disconnect between the values we explicitly try to uphold and the thoughts and behaviors we actually exhibit that might undercut those values. Taking this approach to studying inequality has revealed that even good people with the best of intentions can contribute to the inequalities we decry and try to amend.
What’s one of the most surprising discoveries about human behavior?
In the earlier days of studying human behavior, researchers relied heavily on explicit measures (i.e., directly asking people their thoughts or opinions on various matters). While this approach has been incredibly fruitful, it suffers from the downside that people may be motivated to conceal their true thoughts, or more intriguingly, they may not have access to contents of their minds. But by using more indirect or implicit measures like the Implicit Association Test (IAT), we’ve been able to learn more about the human mind. For me, the most surprising aspect has been how little we may actually know ourselves, and how unflattering the truth about ourselves can be.
Tell us about your work in using social psychology theory to create society-level change.
Our lab’s work in implicit social cognition is widely available on the Internet. Millions of people have taken Implicit Association Tests (IATs) on Project Implicit (implicit.harvard.edu). Hopefully many of these visitors to the website have found the experience to be educational about their own possible biases. Recently, our lab has launched outsmartinghumanminds.org, which contains podcasts and videos about various phenomena that may get in the way of how people want to be.
What have you learned in applying behavioral insights that has changed the way you work?
Like nearly everyone else, I’m embedded in a culture where stereotypes are well known, and these stereotypes have left a thumbprint in on my mind. If I’m not careful, I can fall prey to describing other individuals in stereotypical ways, even when I don’t intend to. This is why in my own writing – like a recommendation letter for a research assistant – I set the writing aside and come back to it after a while to make sure that my descriptions are driven by what I want as opposed to what stereotypes suggest.
How do you use behavioral science in your daily life (or recommend that people use behavioral science in their daily lives)?
A fundamental part of behavioral science is data. What do the data show and how does that compare to what we want or what we expect? There’s an abundance of data – whether it’s on who interrupts more, who gets called on more often, etc. – that can reveal a lot about ourselves. The challenge is in curating those data and reflecting on what they signal. I think that curating these data and learning from them can lead to better daily lives.