Mahzarin R. Banaji was starting out as an assistant professor of psychology at Yale University in the late 1980s, at a time when women professors were scarce enough that administrators eager to offer a class on the psychology of gender turned to her. Banaji had no expertise in the area; her research focused on memory. But she said she would do it, and she quickly found herself inhabiting the overlapping worlds of gender studies and psychology.
Banaji was fascinated by a memory study by psychologist Larry Jacoby. He had asked people to read a list of names from the phone book, such as “Sebastian Weisdorf,” and rate how easy they were to pronounce. A day later, those same people were handed a list of names that included famous people, others from the phone book, and some names from the list they had read the day before. Asked which were famous people, the study participants incorrectly classified Sebastian Weisdorf and others, whose names they had learned just the day before, as famous.