Ben Mittman '18, one of two Senior Fellows, discussed his project “The Influence of Learning and Inference on Intergroup Interactions” with Michelle Chung '20. After graduation, he will be lab manager for a neuroscience lab at MIT.
Q: Explain what you specifically sought to study in your fellowship.
A: I studied how the ways in which the brain collects and processes information affects how people interact with members of different social groups. More specifically, when people face uncertain situations and there is not enough information available to make a decision with complete confidence, people rely on other sources of information, such as other people’s social groups, for help. I'm examining whether the ways that people use information to learn and make decisions also underlie implicit biases and resulting discrimination against different groups of people.
Q: Being able to submit your work to a peer-reviewed journal with a professor is an impressive feat. What led to this decision to collaborate, and how does that process of collaboration go about when researching, analyzing, writing, etc.?
A: After finishing my independent study on the media’s influence on implicit bias during my sophomore year, my professor and I decided that although we did not find the results we expected, we nonetheless found interesting results that may contribute important knowledge to the scientific literature.
My passion for research has also motivated me to begin developing strong research skills. The collaborative writing process began with talks about our findings and what they meant within the context of the scientific literature, and evolved into a decision to write up our results into a manuscript after determining they likely held value.
These discussions yielded a framework for an outline. I went through several outlines and drafts of various sections. Along the way, my advisor allowed me to maintain significant independence, but provided feedback for each piece of the manuscript I wrote and provided additional guidance when I found myself stuck.
Q: How would you say your research is uniquely different from past research done on implicit bias?
A: My research draws from computational neuroscience, a field dedicated to understanding the brain's information processing capabilities, to study implicit bias, a topic nearly exclusively addressed by fields focused on the brain's social functions. My project is different from prior research because it intends to show that some behaviors (e.g., making decisions about different social groups) can be understood to a certain extent by fundamental information processing mechanisms in the brain.
Q: In what ways do you think a liberal arts education influenced you to choose this specific topic of implicit bias for your fellowship?
A: A liberal arts education is what allowed me to begin highly independent research in just my second year, in the form of an independent study. This study was borne out of my interests in better understanding prejudice and psychology in general. Hamilton’s liberal arts philosophy and open curriculum have also encouraged me to take a wide variety of classes, such as a history of jazz course which discussed how prejudice influenced African American jazz musicians in the 20th century.
Major: Interdisciplinary studies
Hometown: Studio City, Calif.
High School: Calabasas High School
It has also helped me develop strong critical thinking skills and a high level of skepticism, both of which are necessary not only for scientific research but also for studying a topic which requires both academic rigor and social/political sensitivity. In researching implicit bias I not only studied a mere collection of thoughts and behaviors which are restricted to the laboratory, but rather a very real phenomenon which affects countless members of marginalized groups and our society as a whole.
I think Hamilton’s liberal arts education has given me the diverse array of skills necessary to study an interdisciplinary topic with such far-reaching implications.
Q: How does the knowledge of our implicit bias play out into the real world, and in what ways do you think people can use your research to understand their own behavior?
A: Unfortunately, there is still much we don't understand about implicit bias, but what we can be fairly confident about is that it is widespread, pernicious, and often unintentional. My research intends to show that behaviors which are believed to result from implicit bias, such as taking a person’s social group into account when it is not relevant (e.g., for a job interview), may actually be based on basic computations carried out by the brain to help us make better informed decisions.
Our awareness of implicit bias should encourage us to think more carefully about the decisions we make because it often comes into play when we do not devote sufficient mental energy to difficult tasks or decisions (such as picking one job applicant out of a large group of well-qualified candidates). I think that people should ... understand that because implicit bias is often unintentional, we should all work together to communicate better with each other rather than let our implicit biases drive wedges between groups of people that come from different backgrounds.
Q: What are your plans post-Hamilton?
A: I will be the new lab manager for a neuroscience lab at MIT, run by Rebecca Saxe. The lab uses neuroimaging techniques (e.g., brain scans) to study how people think, feel, and interact with others in social settings. Research often addresses questions such as how the brain constructs complex thoughts, how children's brains change as they grow up, how people figure out what others are thinking and feeling, and how the brain develops differently in autism. I will mainly contribute to a project that involves scanning infants' brains to figure out how they interpret and interact with the world around them.