On Bias

So what is bias, and why do we have it?  Well, the analogy that I like to use looks like this:

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I drink black coffee.  I live in Wellington at the bottom of the North Island of New Zealand.  We have good coffee.  Everywhere.  So I order long blacks, and I expect them to arrive shorter than long and covered in crema.

I used to live in Auckland.  I know Auckland, I know coffee in Auckland.  I know what it is like in general: specific cafes have changed a lot since I lived there.  When I visit Auckland, I order flat whites.  This is practical; a milky coffee conceals a number of sins (though by no means all!) in the roasting and grinding and extraction of espresso.  Thus, by ordering a flat white, when I don’t have any particular knowledge about the competence of the barista, I minimise my chances of disappointment.

Am I shallow?  Perhaps I am shallow.  But the analogy is this: if I rely on the stereotype that it is hard to get a decent long black in Auckland, I manage to order coffee pretty well successfully, most of the time, with a minimum of effort.  If I care to put the thought into checking out the brand of beans, the machine, and what is being delivered to the person next to me, I might choose to order a long black if that is what I really want.  But that takes some doing.  So the take away message is this: stereotypes are useful.  They are time savers!  Our brains rely on them for all sorts of things.  But they can also deceive.

And when it comes to people?  Whether it is judging the heights of men and women, or the relative athleticism of different ethnicities (sorry for paywall), we all have a lot of experience with people.  This puts us at the mercy of our stereotypes.  If you don’t admit to them?  Well, you can get yourself into a merry knot, trying to explain away your actions.

How about this?

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How much damage could that do, do you reckon?  But it’s actually worse than that.  The factor that may matter most, is not other people’s biases against you, for whatever reason: it’s that you may be biased against yourself.

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Women perform worse in mathematics tests if they are reminded before taking them that they are women.  This is stereotype threat, and I can tell you, as a woman: this is a hell of a lot scarier than any worst case scenario of being discriminated against by others.

Yes, that is right: your own head has it in for you.  At least, it does some of the time.  If you’re a woman, it may give you the warm fuzzies when you start to sew…


Why does this matter?  Well, this is why we talk about the importance of role models.  The PNAS study, that showed the existence of bias in scientists: that doesn’t demonstrate conscious discrimination.  Unconscious, yes.  But the important thing, to me, is not the discrimination:  it’s the connection between discrimination, and the choices people make,  if I can hark back to Larry Summers’ three things.  Could it be that these factors are not so independent?

So when you see questions like these:

Are sexist attitudes still to blame – or is it a fear of being thought uncool?

It might be worth questioning whether or not this dichotomy is valid.

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