Friday, May 18, 2018

Positive bias

                                                                                                                                               May 21, 2017
Dear LoMA Family,

Two weeks ago I wrote about how much of the prejudice and discrimination in the world can be traced back to negative unconscious bias. This is an old idea with plenty of research to back it up; now, however, there is more research being done into positive unconscious bias. This may sound like a weird problem as it is seems to be a good thing to be biased towards liking people; after all isn’t loving someone a kind of bias? Maybe, but unconscious positive bias can actually get us and our society into trouble. The website Social Talent shows how these biases towards the following groups can affect our judgement, listening skills, attitudes, and attention.
1.     Beauty Bias: Because we all like beautiful people and to be liked by beautiful people, we are more likely to pay attention to them, believe them and be influenced by them. How one defines beauty varies of course, but as a society people who are tall, slim and have “good hair” or any hair tend to be promoted more than others. For instance, 60% of CEOs are over 6’ tall, and female actresses tend to have hourglass figures. On a personal level, beautiful people can often get away with more bad behavior with a smile and a wink than others.
2.     Similarity Bias: If someone has similar likes in things like music, food and movies, we tend to be more trusting in their opinions on other matters. Of course, good taste often has very little to do with intelligence and judgement. In hiring staff, I have to remember that just because someone has the good taste to appreciate early Madonna (especially the “Like a Prayer” video), it does not mean that she will make a great teacher.
3.     Confirmation Bias: Once we have begun a narrative about a person, whether positive or negative, we then automatically and unconsciously begin ginning the data. We accentuate the evidence that agrees with our judgement and discount anything that we disagree with to prove that we are really right.

All together these biases can add up to a “halo effect” where we become unconsciously biased towards people who look and act like us – we listen to them more carefully, trust them more, and cut them breaks more often. It is why “pretty girls” can get out of driving tickets more often, popularity contests are so unfair and people who “look good” get hired more easily.
            The flip side of this is that prejudices towards some easily become discriminations towards others. In our society where white men traditionally hold so many keys to power, giving a halo to people who look and act like them, no matter how unconsciously, perpetuates racist and sexist policies towards rewards such as hiring and promotions and penalties such as arrests and incarcerations.
As I have said before, we can never totally escape the narratives we create around unconscious biases, but we can become more aware of them and the thus the ways they affect our decision-making. A couple of years ago, I encouraged students and staff to surface their own biases with a very clever study created at Harvard University. Just Google “implicit bias challenge Harvard.” The more you know yourself the more thoughtful you can be.

Think about it,

John Wenk
May 22                                                Junior trip to Philadelphia
May 28                                                Memorial Day (no school)\
June 4                                                  Prom
June 5                                                  Global History Regents
June 5              6:00                             Majors’ Show

Friday, May 11, 2018


“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly, one begins to twist facts to fit theories instead of theories to fit facts.”
-        Sherlock Holmes
                 May 14, 2018

Dear LoMA Family,

            Lately I have reading about how badly our brain needs to see the world in the form of cogent, cause-and- effect stories, even when these stories are false. We especially like stories in which purely good heroes fight self-righteously against evil demons. When we tell these stories about our own lives, guess which character we usually play. We have such an incredible ability for self-deception in our own narratives that I suspect that even undeniably evil people consider themselves good in their own personal narratives.
These fallacious narratives always make sense because our brain has an insatiable need to create simple cause-and-effect paradigms and connections from whatever data it sees. It’s amazing how big of a story we can create from the barest of evidence. If we see a black eye on a lady or an older man and younger women checking into a hotel together, our minds are racing with stories of what is happening.  Once we have these stories in our head, we will pick and choose the data we need to make it more convincing, and ignore any data that contradicts our narrative.
When it’s about people we don’t know this can lead to rumor mongering or doxing, but it can be even more damaging when we do it with people we care about. For instance, I have seen plenty of people continue dating the wrong guy or girl, or keep unhealthy friendships because they have created a narrative about how great these people are and how great they are with them. Family or real friends may try to help them see the truth, but they will never be able to overcome a narrative that says, “but they really love me,” or “they are the only one who understands me.”
The most dangerous narratives, however, are the ones we create about ourselves. For instance, every kid has a narrative about their performance as a student based on past history and biases. One may believe that they are a strong student who does not need to study in order to do well, or another that they are not good in math. Because they may have failed math in the past and attended tutoring a few times, they may have formed the narrative that “nothing will help.” If they would challenge this narrative by attending tutoring on a regular basis and really focusing on their homework every night, they might see how self-destructive this narrative is. Similarly, if another student believes that they do not need to study before tests because passing classes is good enough, they may be satisfied with mediocre grades until they start getting college rejection notices.
There is no way that we can live without our narratives; they are essential for understanding and making meaning in our life. The problem is that life is always messier and more confusing than simple narratives allow for. People sometimes just make bad choices in relationships; with effort, everyone can be good at math. Don’t be afraid to challenge your narratives. Far too often, they are what hold us back from seeing clearly and making intelligent decisions.

Work hard,                                                                                                     

May 14            12:00                           Senior Ice Cream Social to celebrate College Decision Day
May 16            1:00                             Junior trip to NYTW
May 17            6:00                             Parents’ Association meeting
May 17& 19                                        LoMATE Production of Chicago                               

John Wenk

Friday, May 4, 2018

unconscious bias

“But I think that no matter how smart, people usually see what they're already looking for, that's all.” 
                                                                                                                                   May 7, 2017
Dear LoMA Family,

As prejudice has become more distasteful to most of American society, it has revealed that unconscious bias may be now be the bigger impediment to a just society than conscious discrimination. This is not to say that outright, conscious prejudice doesn’t exist, but to suggest that a great deal of racism, sexism and homophobia comes from people who are not even aware of their behavior. No matter how much we have discrimination, we can all be guilty of reinforcing stereotypical beliefs that hurt others. Recognizing this is the first step in making changes in ourselves and in our society.
One of the most telling examples of this was demonstrated in a 2006 study of job applicants in which Bertrand and Mullainathan of MIT sent nearly 5,000 resumes to 1,300 job ads they found in newspapers in Boston and Chicago from fictional applicants with "very white-sounding names" like Emily Walsh and Greg Baker and "very African-American sounding names" like Lakisha Washington and Jamal Jones. The names were randomly assigned to higher-quality and lower-quality resumes and submitted for administrative support, clerical, customer service and sales openings. They found that the white names got 50 percent more callbacks than the black names, regardless of the quality of the resume, industry or occupation. Other studies confirm this bias:
·        When whites and blacks were sent to bargain for a used car, blacks were offered initial prices roughly $700 higher, and they received far smaller concessions.
·         A regularly repeated study by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development sent African-Americans and whites to look at apartments and found that African-Americans were shown fewer apartments to rent and houses for sale.
·        When iPods were auctioned on eBay, researchers randomly varied the skin color on the hand holding the iPod. A white hand holding the iPod received 21 percent more offers than a black hand.
Of course, unconscious bias goes beyond race. Women suffer pay inequality and make only about 80% of what men do. In the workplace, a strong woman is more likely to be considered a witch (or something that sounds like that) than a similarly acting man who might be admired as strong and demanding. Gay men may be perceived as weak, lesbians as “difficult” and the disabled as helpless.
            If challenged about any of these beliefs, most of us are smart enough to say we know they are not true; nevertheless, society’s prejudices still stain our unconscious. The good news is that we can make the unconscious conscious through education and non-defensive thoughtfulness. For instance, Mullainathan did find one exception to racist unconscious bias – minority applicants to elite colleges are more likely to gain acceptance than similarly qualified white candidates. These schools admitted to their history of discrimination many years earlier, and most are making attempts to correct the problem. And last year two University of Missouri researchers, Koedel and Darolia, tried to replicate Mullainothon’s hiring study from eleven years ago and found much less bias. I hope the reason is that the first study, which was very widely reported, proved so distressing to hiring managers that they began to make changes to minimize their biases.
            Some forms of prejudice seem to be hard-wired into our brain, but that doesn’t necessarily have to lead to discrimination. Surrounding ourselves with diversity, considering history and being non-defensive about our own narrow-mindedness can lead to a more just society.

Think about it,

John Wenk
May 10            5:45-8:00                    Parent Teacher Conferences
May 14            12:00                           Senior Ice Cream Social to celebrate College Decision Day
May 16            1:00                             Junior trip to NYTW
May 17            6:00                             Parents’ Association meeting
May 17-19                                          LoMATE Production of Chicago                               

Today’s Shaka is 7 freshmen stories about times they’ve encountered or witnessed discrimination or prejudice.  They are chosen from a depressingly large pile of submissions. 
I was in fourth grade and we had just learned how to play soccer (correctly) in gym.  So we had lunch next and then went outside.  All of the girls decided we wanted to play soccer.  We were eager to play since we just learned new skills.  However, the boys came out of nowhere and took the ball from us.  They kept saying we were being stupid and that girls can’t play soccer.  When we were arguing with them, they challenged all the girls in the class against all the boys, because they said that was the only way we’d get the ball back.  These boys had played soccer every single day during lunch, so I didn’t think we had a chance.  This isn’t going to be one of those David beating Goliath stories.  We lost, but I ran and took the ball mostly because I was pissed they said girls couldn’t play, so I made sure they couldn’t either.  From that day on, we played soccer at lunch and ignored what the boys had to say. 
Not too long ago a friend of mine killed themself.  It was four days after my 16th birthday.  They were very different from most kids in many ways.  They were bullied and rejected because they told the class they didn’t identify as female anymore.  They became very self-conscious about everything, and I remember a very difficult time when they told me about getting beaten up.  They were left on the side of the road after being sexually assaulted and beaten.  When I had had troubles with other people, they had always been there to tell me I didn’t need to be afraid of being myself and that I shouldn’t worry about being accepted by anyone but myself.  I felt so bad that I couldn’t do anything to help them through this, but it felt over my head.  They always listened to me and my problems until one day they just stopped.  Stopped breathing, stopped blinking, and stopped replying.  I watched them bury a lifeless body under six feet of dirt and years of other people’s opinions.   
I do a program that has an all-Black staff.  Every year we go on a camping trip with this program.  So last year, there was a meeting talking about the trip to the camp for the parents to talk about what happens and who the kids will be with, et cetera.  There was this one mother of a 7th grader who came to the meeting and stood the whole time just listening.  After that meeting, the mom told her daughter she couldn’t participate, and I found out from my classmate that it was because there was an African American man in the room who would be on the trip, and that was the only reason she wasn’t going to be allowed to go.  She said her mom told her she couldn’t trust him to protect her. 
I went to a party one day and there was a boy there who’s gay.  At the party, there were a lot of boys and girls dancing.  The gay boy tried to join the group and dance with everybody, but the other boys, who were straight, got tight.  They wanted to fight him.  So the boy just left the party and went home.  He wanted to have fun and dance with everyone else, but couldn’t without all of the other boys feeling some type of way.  It’s weird, but I found it so humiliating to have seen him humiliated. 
I don’t remember how long ago it was, but one of my older sisters went to prom with her best friend, who is gay.  She came home in tears after leaving early because people kept coming up to them at the dance and saying the most f***ed up things to him, making him feel inhuman, when they were just trying to have a great night. 
Once, my family and I were walking down the train station.  We heard people yelling toward a man standing with his kids.  They were Chinese, and asking for directions, and the group was mocking the way the man talked, because his English wasn’t too clear.  Everyone around was standing and looking away uncomfortably.  I just remember the look on the man’s face, and especially the look on his kids’ face as they were being harassed just for asking for help.  
My day was going good.  I thought my clothes were normal.  Everything felt great.  I got off the train and started walking home.  A man stopped me to ask for money.  I told him I didn’t have any, but he kept asking.  At first, he said it was for weed, then he said it was for his family, and then he said he just wanted my respect and asked me for my number.  I said I didn’t have money and told him I didn’t feel comfortable with him having my number and I started to walk away.  Then he ran up behind me, grabbed my ass, and said, “don’t walk away from me, bitch!” I took a deep breath and started to run.  I ran so fast as far as I could, but I could hear him following me.  I dipped into a deli, where my parents know the owners.  I stayed there and called my mom. I told her I didn’t have my keys.  I felt like crying.  She said she would come and get me.  My face felt so hot.  I can only remember thinking, “this wouldn’t have happened if I was a boy.”