Thursday, June 09, 2005

"Unconscious" Bias at Work

I've written before about Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, Blink, and my two minds about his pet concept of "unconscious bias."

On the one hand he has probably started more conversations about gender, racial and other kinds of issues, and with much calmer results, than most other folks these days...and aprt of the reason is that his "unconscious bias" meme gives people an automatic out. After all, we can't hold someone with unconscious bias as accountable, as long as they try to "become aware" and work on it.

On the other hand, what's so "unconscious" when you can see the person, see the name, see the gender, race or whatever in front of you?

Let me give you an example: when I lived in NYC in the late 80s it was a pretty ugly time. When I rode the subway and any group of more than 2 or 3 young men came through the subway car (and BTW: it didn't matter what race they were...this was the era of both the Central Park jogger case and Howard Beach) I gripped my purse a little tighter and steadily avoided "noticing" them. There were news stories at the time about girl gangs. Girls were out there creating their own chaos, but a group of girls didn't engender the automatic reaction from me. They had to be doing something noticeable anti-social to make me really nervous.

That's not unconscious, baby. I was biased against "yoots" (if you haven't seen My Cousin Vinny go rent it.) I didn't think about it in the moment, but I certainly could have articulated it had I been asked.

So are the biases Gladwell discusses really unconscious, or do people just not want to articulate their biases?

In Monday's Merc [Reg. Reqd.] there was a brief blurb about local VC Heidi Roizen. Two months ago...two months ago, a professor at Columbia held a little experiment:

"A "Heidi Roizen Harvard Business School case" was taught to two sections of the class: In one, the case was presented as Heidi Roizen; in the other it was taught as Howard Roizen. Follow-up questions were asked.

Roizen said she was surprised with the results. "The men graded Howard higher while women saw the two cases as equivalent. I just hope that someday gender will no longer be an issue," she said.

OK, first of all, kinda sad that these business students had never heard of Heidi Roizen to know they were being tricked, but I guess she's really a Silicon Valley icon, rather than national business icon.

Second of all, I'm frankly surprised that women come out smelling like roses here and rating the two plans the same. Frankly, I wouldn't have been surprised if an unconscious bias supported by the messages we all receive from society was equally present in men as women.

But third and finally: can we really call that unconscious bias? I'm not entirely convinced. Not when the men and women delivered different results from one another.

Now here's the question that wasn't answered in the blurb: the women in the two classes rated the two plans the same. The men rated the man's plan higher. How were the men's rating in relation to the women's? Did men and women rate Howard equally, but all of sudden the men's ratings dropped drastically when it was Heidi? Conversely, did men and women rate Heidi equally, but suddenly men were giving a much bigger shout-out to Howard?

Just remember: this experiment was conducted 2 months ago. This might explain why I'm never the first one to jump on the 'You've come a long way, baby' bandwagon.

Interesting questions.

Not being a Freudian, I have never fully accepted the notion of an unconscious and so my own response to your first question would have to be "nothing" and I would have to conclude for the second question that people, for the most part, are indeed having difficulty articulating their biases.

To me, there is no automatic out. Are we "becoming aware" or are we just "owning up" to things that we always held in our "conscious", but would not admit to?

I imagine that it is probably different in each situation. Sometimes we do grow.

In the earlier section Blink in Black and White, Gladwell attempts to demonstrate the implicit associations that can be made with regard to roles and gender.

Here, implicit is taken to mean "unconscious" of course. But is it?

I wonder what the results of the Roizen case would be if it were presented without any indication of gender and then rated.

After that, it might be fun to ask for student's best guess as to author's gender.

If a lawyer calls an expert witness to the stand to testify about very specific automotive details, how many people will be surprised to find out the witness' name is Mona!
Excellent reference!

Thanks for the great comment.

That's a very good question about what they would have guessed about a non-gender-identified business case.

My guess is that it would have depended on their gender and how much they liked the business case :)
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