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,