The importance of understanding bias

by Christine Scheuring, PRIM&R Blog Squad Member

PRIM&R is pleased to bring you the second live blog post from the PRIM&R Blog Squad at the 2011 Social, Behavioral, and Educational Research (SBER) Conference. The PRIM&R Blog Squad is composed of PRIM&R members who are devoted to blogging live from our conferences. The PRIM&R Blog Squad member for the 2011 SBER Conference is Christine Scheuring.

One of the most memorable speakers on the first day of the 2011 Social, Behavioral, and Educational Research (SBER) Conference was Mahzarin Banaji, PhD, from Harvard University. Dr. Banaji, during her talk Blindspot: The Hidden Biases of Good People, used different visual cues and examples to illustrate the biases we unknowingly act upon.

One example Dr. Banaji presented included two different news stories and pictures published after Hurricane Katrina. One photo showed a young, black male waist-deep in water with a garbage bag full of items. The news story stated that the boy had been looting after the hurricane hit.

A similar picture of a middle-aged white couple also waist-deep in water with their backpacks full of items, described the couple as having “found” these items at a local grocery store. Interestingly, these articles appeared in the same journal and were edited by the same person, thus affirming the thesis of Dr. Banaji’s talk that we do, indeed, have hidden biases we may not be aware of.

Dr. Banaji also showed photos of different faces and informed the audience that within one second our mind makes decisions about whether a person is trustworthy or not. Within one second! Think how many times this comes into play at work, during interviews, dates… We are constantly making assumptions about people without knowing a single thing about them.

Still not convinced about how powerful perception and biases are? I welcome you to try for yourself one of the examples that Dr. Banaji shared. Watch the following video and count how many times the person in the black t-shirt passes the basketball to another team member in who is also wearing a black t-shirt. View the video here.

How many times did you count? Did you notice anything else strange in the video? Try taking a closer at the video, and this time keep your eye on the right side of the screen. Did you see a woman walk by with an umbrella this time? Freaky, right?!

Watching the clip in the session, we were all miffed at how we could have missed what now seems so obvious. This is because we have a perception of what happens at a basketball game and it certainly doesn’t involve women with umbrellas!

So what can we do to counteract these biases? Being aware of the existence of such biases and opening ourselves up to meeting people who are different from ourselves seems to be key.

While exploring this topic, Dr. Banaji managed to keep the audience engaged, laughing and at the edge of our seats to hear more. One audience member even commented that hearing her speak on this topic had been life changing. I don’t know if there is a ranking system for compliments, but I’d say that’s got to be one of the best to receive. The first day of the conference proved to be educational, interesting and insightful, but then again, who knows, I just might be a little biased.