Biases: Whether We Like it or Not, They're in All of Us

Biases: Whether We Like it or Not, They're in All of Us

By: Megan Smith and Yana Weinstein

Yana and I started Learning Scientists about 2 months ago. This project has allowed us to start having conversations outside of our higher-ed academic setting. We are learning a ton, and are both basically obsessed with our new-found passion: blogging about science.

Today, we wanted to write about something that is a little bit outside of our normal topic of student learning. Because of our blog and social media conversations, we have been thinking a lot about the differences between laboratory research and classroom settings. We have also been focusing a lot on the biases that come into play when assessing learning strategies, and general biases various groups tend to have about researchers, teachers, and administrators as a whole.

When you really start to think carefully about bias and apply it to your everyday life, you see it everywhere.

Example: the issue of gender in this year’s election. For the first time, with Hillary Clinton as a very serious front-runner for the democratic nominee, it seems we will have a choice to vote for a female President in the general election. (Yana would like to interject here that this “we” does not include her, since she is not a US citizen. And she is not bitter about this. At all…)

Hillary’s gender has come up in the election, and there’s no end to the articles we can read about gender issues in the primaries: whether Cruz and Sanders are playing the gender card, or whether it is in fact Clinton who is "running as a woman" and "playing the gender card".

These issues have come up a ton, but the American people might be wondering: are we really that sexist in 2016? Haven’t things improved for women? Does Hillary Clinton’s gender even matter at all, at this point in our highly evolved society?

Our answer is yes (we still are sexist in the 21st century), yes (things have, to some extent, improved), and yes (Hillary’s gender matters). Gender shouldn't matter, but it does. Given implicit biases, we really can't ignore gender as an issue. Comments like the ones in this video demonstrate that she is being evaluated in a gendered way. Yes, this video is a compilation of clips around a certain theme; but this is by no means all of the sexist media coverage she’s had, and it shouldn’t happen at all.

Let’s explore why this type of sexism occurs. Some people might hold explicit biases, and are more than willing to say “Hillary Clinton can’t be President because she’s a woman, and we can’t have a woman in the White House.” Probably the majority of our readers will agree that this is problematic; but at least, in such cases what you see is what you get.

Many (most? dare we say, all??) other people, however, hold implicit biases –  biases that reside outside their conscious awareness. For example, people might say they support gender equality, they want to support gender equality, they have every reason to believe a woman could be President, but deep down, they’re biased. They have implicit, unconscious expectations about how men and women should act, and these biases come from simply living in our society.

Here's a great example of implicit bias. In a relatively recent study from 2012, identical student resumes were sent to faculty in science fields. Each faculty member received the same resume, with either a typically male or a typically female applicant name on it. Researchers then asked the faculty (male and female professors) whether they would be willing to hire the student to be their lab manager, and whether they would be willing to mentor these students to help them get into graduate school. Even though the applicants' credentials were identical, the students with typically male names were more likely to be hired, and faculty were more willing to mentor these hypothetical male students to help them get into graduate school. Furthermore, this bias was still seen when just looking at the FEMALE faculty.... and presumably, most female scientists don't run around explicitly thinking women would make worse lab managers simply because they’re women. The bias is implicit, and therefore, these women likely aren't consciously aware that they are discriminating, even though it harms a fellow female scientist.

The thing is, it actually makes sense from an evolutionary perspective for us to hold onto these biases. Implicit biases are deeply tied to our use of heuristics (or mental short-cuts). Heuristics allow us to make decisions quickly and save cognitive energy for other tasks, and so we have evolved to use tons of heuristics that help us make decisions, and many work most of the time. Take, for example, someone who looks different to you. In prehistoric times, making snap judgments about out-group members based on appearances may have been sensible. It may have been safer to assume an out-group member was dangerous and run away, than to assume they were friendly and be killed. The problem is that we don't live in a primitive society any more, and so these heuristics aren't really useful (instead, they can be quite harmful). Survival in today's world means a completely different thing than it used to. But the heuristics are ingrained.

To sum up: even if we aren't consciously aware of the biases we hold, we perceive the world through a lens that is affected by societal bias, expectations, and the deep past. And just because someone is an ally, or a member of the group themselves, doesn’t make them immune from bias. The best we can do is be aware that we may all hold biases, and pause to question our own. We find it useful to play devil’s advocate with ourselves, to try to take a new perspective and bounce ideas around with people who disagree with us. Because as much as we would love to say we should simply look past Hillary’s gender, it seems that it might not be that simple.