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.

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.

You probably think you have above average intelligence.

You probably think you have above average intelligence.

You probably think you have above average intelligence. I would agree with you, since you are reading my blog.

It stands to reason that 50% of the population has above average intelligence, and 50% are below average. However, a study by Heck, Simons and Chabris has shown that 65% of Americans consider their intelligence to be above average.

This is not a surprise. Intelligence is considered a good thing, and we like to think well of ourselves. Therefore, to boost our own self-esteem, we consider ourselves above average. It is a kind of self-serving bias.

The effect was greater for men than for women. 70% of men, and 60% of women rated themselves as more intelligent than average. I will leave it to you to speculate why that may have been!

A self-serving bias is only one of several biases probably at play when you are asked how intelligent you are. You may also be affected by who you hang out with, and what you consider to be intelligence.

The statistics showed that those of a lower intelligence were more likely to overestimate, and those of a higher intelligence more likely to underestimate. This could be partly because people are likely to mix with others of a broadly similar mentality and intelligence. For example, those clever enough to get into university are then going to spend their time with other undergraduates and graduates. People they see all around them are very clever, so what they consider “average” may actually be far higher than the national average actually is.

Also, IQ may not be the only thing people are thinking about when asked about intelligence. Maybe someone who would not do well at exams considers themselves very streetwise, and that is the kind of intelligence which is relevant to them and their situation.

It is likely, though, that the overriding reason for 65% considering themselves as above average is the self-serving bias. We all want to feel good about ourselves.

 

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.

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