Fighting Your Prejudices Could Make Them Worse

Fighting Your Prejudices Could Make Them Worse

We all have prejudices. Stereotypes are a necessary part of our psychological make-up and prejudices are an unfortunate side effect of these. However, we are sentient beings who should be able to rise above these prejudices, see them for what they are, and act in a fair and unbiased manner. Right? Weeeell… sooooort of.

Imagine you are interviewing people for a job and you have in front of you a skinhead man with tattoos and piercings in places you didn’t even know were potential sites for such things. You may well hold a stereotype in your head that tells you people who look like that are aggressive anti-establishment types, which isn’t what you really require for the running of the local Conservative council.

Hang on, you tell yourself, I must not be biased and judgemental. I must not pander to my thoughts that skinheads are aggressive. I must not think that. In the short term that may work and this one lucky skinhead may get a fair hearing. What you are doing, however, is reminding yourself of your prejudice. It is like trying not to think of an elephant. It makes you think of one (this is called ironic process theory). Trying not to think of skinheads as aggressive may actually bring to mind memories from TV or film or real life when you did see skinheads being aggressive. And bringing those images to mind strengthens the stereotype.

So fighting against your prejudice may have, perversely, made it worse.

The good news is that repeatedly, consciously countering the negative stereotype does appear to get rid of it eventually. Unfortunately, however, we hold so many stereotypes, there is no way we could even know what they all are, let alone combat them all.

Find out more about how the mind plays tricks on you and how your memory works by reading my books, Bias Beware and Memory Matters.

Your Self-Image is Very Flexible

Your Self-Image is Very Flexible

If I asked you a question about yourself, the answer would depend on what else is on your mind. Your self-image is extremely susceptible to the availability heuristic. This heuristic causes you to assume something is important or more likely if you can easily think of an example of it. So if I asked if you were  assertive your answer would depend on how easily you could think of an example of your being assertive.

If, earlier in the day, you had had occasion to think about being assertive, you are likely now to come up with examples very easily. Hence you will answer that you are indeed quite assertive. If you had not thought about it earlier then you will now have more difficulty coming up with examples. You would therefore answer that you are not so assertive.

The same happens when asked about your general feelings. Schwartz, Stack and Mai asked students to fill in a questionnaire. Two of the questions were, “How happy are you these days?” and “How many dates did you have last month?”, well separated within the questionnaire so that the students didn’t consciously link them in any way. Some questionnaires asked about the dates earlier than happiness, and some later.

The answer to the number of dates showed no correlation with happiness when the happiness question came first. When the dating question came first though, those who had had more dates rated themselves as happier than those who had had fewer. When asked about their happiness they thought about reasons they might feel happy or sad. Because they had recently thought about their dating life, this easily came to mind and influenced the assessment of their happiness.

Find out more about how the mind plays tricks on you and how your memory works by reading my books, Bias Beware and Memory Matters.

If your teacher thinks you are dumb, you will be.

If your teacher thinks you are dumb, you will be.

If your teacher thinks you are dumb, you will be.

The Golem Effect is where if someone has a negative opinion of you, you will perform worse for them than you would have otherwise. The Pygmalion Effect is the opposite – a positive opinion will result in your overachieving. Teaching is the most obvious environment where this has a profound effect. If you have two equal students, but the teacher for some reason thinks one is clever and the other stupid, they are likely to perform very differently. Together the pygmalion and golem effects are known as the Observer-Expectancy Effect.

There are many experiments which have shown this effect, such as Eden and Shani’s, in the early 1980s. They gave instructors of a commando training course the “command potential” of each of the soldiers they were teaching. The command potential, of which the soldiers were unaware, was either Regular, Unknown or High. After a 15 week course there was a battery of tests, both theory and practical. Those with a regular potential scored an average of 65%. Those with a high potential averaged 80%.

Not a surprising result, you might think. One would expect those with a higher potential to do better. But the thing is, the score was completely made up and didn’t relate to any ability whatsoever. It was purely the instructors’ beliefs and attitudes towards the soldiers (from their awareness of this supposed command potential) which caused the over- or under-achievement.

Find out more about how the mind plays tricks on you and how your memory works by reading my books, Bias Beware and Memory Matters.

We act out our own stereotypes

We act out our own stereotypes

We cannot help acting out our own stereotypes. By this I mean, if we have a stereotype which applies to us, we are prone to conforming to that stereotype.

Priming is the means by which social psychologists, being extremely devious, awaken a schema in someone without their knowing it. It is like getting a thought going in the back of their mind that they are not aware of. Psychologists might do this by exposing the person to several related words. For instance, to awaken the old age schema people might be exposed to the words grey, wrinkles, walking stick and so on. These words are put in amongst plenty of irrelevant words to stop the participant catching on. The technique seems to do the trick (as seen, for example, by people who have had the old age schemata awakened walking more slowly than people who have not).

Shih, Pittinsky and Ambady decided to see if people would act more like stereotypes of themselves if they had those stereotype schemata awakened. In America there is a stereotype that women are not good at mathematics. There is also one that people of Asian descent are good at mathematics. So the experimenters took a bunch of Asian American women for their participants. One third did not have any schema awakened, one third were exposed to words concerned with ethnicity, and one third were exposed to words concerned with gender. They all then completed a mathematics test.

Those who had their ethnicity schema awakened did better than average at the test, and those who had their gender schema awakened did worse than average.

So, those who had their Asian schema subconsciously awakened conformed to the stereotype concerning Asians and did well; and those who had their female schema awakened conformed to the stereotype that women are not good at mathematics.

A replication of this experiment by Carolyn E. Gibson et al, in 2014 showed the same effect, and also showed that the effect did not materialise in women who were unaware of the stereotypes.

Find out more about how the mind plays tricks on you and how your memory works by reading my books, Bias Beware and Memory Matters.

“Will a major storm devastate a small island in the near future?” An example of the availability heuristic.

“Will a major storm devastate a small island in the near future?” An example of the availability heuristic.

Do you think a major storm is likely to devastate a small island quite soon? I am no meteorologist but, being a psychologist, I expect that your answer to this question was “yes”.

Two horrific storms are lashing different parts of the world as I write this. The newspapers and websites are full of the devastation in the Philippines and the Eastern USA. You would have been hard pressed not to see the headlines and images of rain, wind and landslides.

So, when I asked if you thought a major storm was likely to devastate an island, you found it very easy to conjure up an example or two of major storms. And the ease with which you came up with the examples would have dictated your response. Unless you are a meteorologist, I expect you have no knowledge of the actual likelihood of major storms. You can only go by instinct.

If you find it easy to think of an example of something, you will conclude that it is more likely to happen. If you find it difficult, you will conclude that it is less likely to happen. This is called the availability heuristic, and it is a very common bias affecting our judgement.

It is not the number of examples you can think up which dictates your judgement, but the ease with which you do so. Schwarz et al demonstrated this in an experiment in 1991.Some of the participants were asked to come up with 6 examples of when they had been assertive, and others were asked to come up with 12 examples. Those who only thought of 6 instances then considered themselves more assertive than those who thought of 12. This seems, at first, illogical, but is the availability heuristic at work.

Those who had to think of 12 examples struggled with the last few. It was difficult to come up with as many as they were asked for. This difficulty led them to believe that they were not assertive. Those who only had to think of a few examples found it quite easy, so they concluded that they were indeed assertive.

So your answer to whether you thought it likely a major storm would devastate an island is not so much an indication of your meteorological knowledge. It tells me more about your exposure to recent news outlets.

Find out more about the way the brain fools us in my book, Bias Beware, available here.

We need stereotypes

We need stereotypes

A stereotype is a heuristic – a mental shortcut. We would need them to negotiate our way around a simple world, let alone the complicated one we find ourselves in now.
If you see a square-ish, flat surface with four legs holding it off the floor and a vertical surface rising from one side you are likely to deduce that it is a chair. It fits the various qualities you associate with chairs according to your chair-schema in your head. Imagine if every time you saw a chair you had to work out anew exactly what it was and what it was for. Now imagine you had to do that for every object you came across. Life would be unmanageable.
We need schemata to tell us what novel objects are likely to be, what they are for, and whether they are dangerous.
A stereotype is simply a schema, but we usually (not always) use the term stereotype when talking about schemata applied to types of people. For example, a man with lots of piercings and pink hair in a mohican style fits the stereotype of a punk. A man with a pin-striped suit, a bowler hat and an umbrella fits the stereotype of a London stockbroker who inadvertently stepped into a time warp.
In these days of tolerance (although that seems to me to be on the decline recently), people-based stereotypes appear to be less important because we copy styles from all over the world. Wearing a special tattoo no longer necessarily means you are from one particular Maori tribe – it may just mean you liked the design. Having a distinctive shade of skin no longer designates you as being from a particular part of the world any more, as more and more cities become more and more cosmopolitan.
Stereotypes persist, however, and can help us out occasionally. If you see a man with a balaclava and a shotgun, it is still best to follow your stereotype instincts and duck around the corner before he sees you.

First impressions (really do) last

First impressions (really do) last

It is a familiar adage that first impressions last, but they really do. After we have formed a first impression about someone, usually remarkably quickly, we then spend any time we have with them looking for evidence to confirm our opinion. Note my wording there: we look for evidence to confirm our opinion. We don’t look for any evidence either way. Oh no, that would mean acting objectively and fairly, and our brains don’t want to appear flakey by changing their minds. So they actively look for evidence which corroborates the original impression and generally ignore anything which doesn’t.
In 1950 a group of students were told that they were going to have a substitute lecturer for one session and were given brief biographies of that substitute. At the end of the lecture they were asked to fill in a questionnaire designed to find out what they thought of the lecturer himself. There were actually two biographies given out, half of the students receiving each. One bio, in amongst the rest of the lecturer’s history, said people who knew him described him as “a very warm person, industrious, critical, practical and determined”. The other said people described him as “a rather cold person, industrious, critical, practical and determined”. The only difference between the two biographies was that one called him “very warm”, and the other “rather cold”.
Just two words differed in amongst about a hundred. Yet after these students had all sat through the same one hour lecture, those who had read that he was very warm then tended to describe him as “humorous, informal, sociable and considerate”; those who had read that he was rather cold described him as “formal, unsociable, irritable and self-centered”. A whole hour of watching and listening to him could not compete with the first impression formed by just two words.

Presentation is everything

Presentation is everything

I don’t know about you, but when I cook dinner for my family and dish it up, I am a firm believer that presentation doesn’t matter. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Taste is everything and the sloppiness of my sloshing the food onto the plate is unimportant. That is, until they taste it and I have to fall back on “It’s good for you and it’s all you’re getting. Eat it”, but that’s beside the point. My point is that it doesn’t matter what my cooking looks like on the plate.

But I’m wrong.

Presentation creates expectations, which affect our perception in every meaningful way, including taste. If someone sees a great looking meal on the plate the halo effect kicks in and they expect it to taste good too. That expectation influences the final perception so they are more likely to think it is delicious.
There are many experiments demonstrating this phenomena, including by Dan Ariely, as related in his book, Predictably Irrational. He set up a stand giving away free samples of coffee. There were various ingredients people could add to the coffee if they chose, but they were so bizarre that no one did. Those ingredients were in view though, and were either in styrofoam cups or beautifully laid out in classy, brushed metal containers. The consumers were much more likely to say they enjoyed the coffee if those (unused) additives were in the attractive containers.

You should pay people less to lie

You should pay people less to lie

In 1959 Festinger and Carlsmith asked the participants in their experiment to complete an extremely boring couple of tasks for an hour. Each participant was then offered money to lie to the next one and say that they would find the task really interesting and enjoyable. They were offered either $1 or $20.
After they had told their lies the participants were interviewed to find out how interesting and enjoyable they had really found the tasks. Those who had only been paid $1 to lie to the other participant reported finding the tasks much more enjoyable than those who had been paid $20.
The cause of this strange discrepancy is something called cognitive dissonance – the uncomfortable feeling of inconsistency in our thoughts and behaviours. Our brain doesn’t like to think of us as inconsistent, so it will do what it can to avoid it.
We don’t like to think of ourselves as liars because we are brought up to believe that lying is bad. But the participants were asked to lie to another person and tell them that they would find a really boring task interesting. They didn’t like to think of themselves as liars, but they did lie, and this caused cognitive dissonance.
The participants who were paid $20 could justified their lies by telling themselves that they did it for the money. This reduced their cognitive dissonance. Those who were only paid $1 couldn’t really justify their lies the same way as $1 is such a paltry sum. Instead they reduced the dissonance by convincing themselves that the tasks weren’t so bad. If they believed the tasks were interesting then they weren’t lying and there was no cognitive dissonance.
This sort of change in our attitudes is happening all the time every day. Our minds are constantly making small adjustments to our beliefs and opinions to avoid the uncomfortable feelings of cognitive dissonance.

If you wake up expecting a stressful day, you will make more mistakes

If you wake up expecting a stressful day, you will make more mistakes

A recent study by Hyun et al indicated that if you wake up in the morning expecting to experience stress, your working memory function will be impaired throughout the day.
Working memory is that part (or parts) of your brain which makes second to second calculations. It is the part which you use to manipulate information, whether verbal, numerical or visual. Many decisions, particularly business-type decisions, are made on the basis of calculations made by the working memory.
Hyun’s participants were periodically reminded, by their smartphones, to complete a quick questionnaire designed to measure their stress anticipation. They then completed a working memory task. People who woke up and started the day anticipating stress performed worse in the tasks even much later in the day. This happened whether or not the stress did in fact materialise.
Seeing as working memory is so important in the average office worker’s decision making, it behoves managers and leaders to do everything they can to prevent their employees from expecting to feel stressed. This way, perhaps, errors in reasoning and decision making can be avoided.

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