Sleep study raises hope for clinical treatment of racism, sexism and other biases

Jun 13, 2015

by Gareth Gaskell

Imagine being able to erase the innermost prejudices you are most ashamed of by simply turning on a sound machine before going to bed. It may sound fantastical, but a new study has shown that our biases can indeed be counteracted while we sleep.

Of course, most of us would contend that we are not racist or sexist. But many studies have shown that our actions suggest otherwise. For example, when evaluating applications for a science laboratory position, male applicants were viewed by university science faculty members as more hireable, competent and deserving of a high salary than identically qualified female applicants.

These biases are not surprising. We are often overwhelmed with information that can reinforce race and .

Implicit association

In a new study, researchers built on our rapidly developing understanding of the way recent memories become ingrained in our mind during sleep. This “” process takes an unstable new memory and makes it stronger, and more resistant to forgetting, possibly changing its nature in the process.

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15 comments on “Sleep study raises hope for clinical treatment of racism, sexism and other biases

  • What a wonderful society a revolutionary advance of this nature could help build … why soon we could “treat” people for holding any other “wrong” opinion. Who needs the most basic freedoms, like freedom of thought or opinion, anyway?

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  • Racism. Sexism. Why stop there. Why not go after the big daddy of them all. Religion.

    Bad idea. The science might add to the understand of the human brain, but should not be used for the purposes stated. Curing prejudice, is a never ending story, as each child is impregnated with the prejudices of the parent. Wait. That sounds like religion.

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  • But what about the victims of those prejudices.

    Actually there is a longer lasting but harder way and that’s to fight to change people’s perceptions That’s worked wonders with racism and homophobia – and is slowly being brought to bear on sexism. Change the memes not the people.

    Turn the memes onto the idiots instead.

    It’s long, it’s hard work but it does work.

    Racists are now seen as thick, ignorant bullet headed morons with pit bulls as we’ve changed attitudes. Rather than the norms.

    Homophobes as old fashioned, twee and a little bit prurient – far too interested about the sex lives of others to be quite right.

    As for sexists we’re getting there but they’re now seen as sad lonely figures of fun, with hygiene problems, who can’t talk to women rather than cool lotharios.

    The Voldemort of the science lab being made the butt of so many jokes his science has been forgotten is a brilliant case in point (it’s relevant to bring he who must not be named into this topic surely?).

    Still not there on that one but things like no more page three have made idiots of a lot of the sexists and sexist institutions.

    You don’t need sleep you need meme changing discussions. You need to call out the behaviours whenever you see them. You need to take the p out of anyone that utters sexist or racist terms,.

    Just a lot more ethical and long lasting.

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  • 7
    scargill says:

    The communists could have a field day with this – creating “right thinking” throughout. No doubt the Islamics could invent a machine to stop atheists having wrong thinking too. I’m not sure I’d really want to encourage ANY kind of basic “treatment” of this nature. Sounds a hell of a lot more dangerous than GM food to me.

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  • The authors themselves admit that the whole foundation of the study, the Implicit Association Tests, aren’t the most solid -actually, I took some of them and I’m largely unimpressed with the whole concept.
    That kind of test may have some significance in probing the general position of a population but, really, at the level of the single individual, the instrument is far from being unquestionable.

    That said, although I may even have called racism and/or sexism or the like “diseases”, I have done so for the sake of the argument and I think that those paragon should be considered valid only within a rhetoric context. I wouldn’t take that to the letter. And for sure I would not take that as a medical statement.
    We have come to the point in civilization where an individual has the right to determine her own set of ideas concerning the world and has the right to promote them, no matter how pernicious and wrong they may be. It’s up to the rest of us discussing them into oblivion.
    Manipulating “biases” with means others than discourse is something I’d find despicable. And downright evil if done without consent or “to cure” someone. One does not cure opinions, not even idiotic ones.

    Of course, if someone believes her own opinions are wrong somehow and need to be change… well, then: millions of years of evolution went into a quarter of a square meter of cerebral cortex. Just as one can learn how to master her own sphincters, mastery over impulses and prejudices (maybe injected in early childhood without consent) can be learned. It’s a process that requires years and may never succeed and it may be that one has to continuously live with an aftertaste of discomfort while behaving as she knows is the correct, moral way. As far as I’m concerned: so be it. Right doesn’t mean easy.
    Besides, in the process above, one is required to think a lot about stuff, ponder consequences and reach conclusions: it’s a great exercise of the mind which comes in always handy while navigating the world. Much more than just absorbing some new “bias” while asleep.

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  • 11
    Cairsley says:

    Well put, Alice. Our opinions, beliefs, thoughts and so on are things we each have to take responsibility for. Using some kind of treatment to alter a person’s thinking would be an assault on his or her personal autonomy, overriding the person’s responsibility for how and what he or she thinks. Even if someone consented to this treatment (in order for example to become less racist), it would be using a bad means to attain a good end (and we all know that the end does not justify the means), for one would thereby be abdicating one’s responsibility as a rational (ergo moral) being to work through the issue to find a morally justifiable conclusion. Would a person who had undergone such treatment (perhaps in order to fit in better with prevailing fashions of thought) know any better why it is not good to be racist?

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  • 12
    ad nauseam says:

    clinical treatment of racism, sexism and other biases

    I wasn’t aware all these biases were diseases in need of treatment…it seems that what the title implies.

    What was yesterday’s morality will be tomorrow’s pathology I suppose…I can see it now…

    “Yes, you must undergo treatment for your political opinions, because the court has found them to be hateful and dangerous. But don’t worry, we will soon have you cured from this terrible disease you poor unfortunate soul!”

    Hahahaha! I doubt it will be that effective…but who knows what it will happen in a century’s time…

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  • It seems to me bigots don’t see themselves as bigots, and get quite upset when you call them bigots. They believe they are just accurate judges of the flaws of some group. I doubt they would sign up.

    I have noticed in myself a prejudice against native people I inherited from my mother and grandmother. After my grandfather died, my grandmother married the paper boy, a part-native guy she did not like and blamed all his negative qualities on Indian blood. My father was fascinated by totem poles and carvings so I got some balance from him. I would consider such a treatment to get rid of that prejudice

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  • 14
    Lorenzo says:

    Question: do you actually act out your prejudice against Native Americans or does it just sit there making you slightly uncomfortable at the beginning of your interactions with them?

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