Pt 1: Bias and Choice

Posted on 9 September, 2019

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We’re making decisions every day. Hundreds of them. And for every single one that we make, there’s a reason behind it (even if we don’t know what that reason is). A lot of the time, the reasons behind our choices are ingrained in bias that we have developed over the years.

There are multiple types of bias; implicit/explicit, confirmation, framing, false-consensus, friendliness and stereotype bias (which also has two forms), and many more. Most of them boil down to a simple fact – you make the choices you do because your life experiences have led you to make it.

We’re going to give a brief overview of certain types of bias and how they impact how you behave. But first, a quick example of bias in action!

In a study by Sheena Iyengar, she asked women to pick a colour of nail polish to try. They were given two options which happened to be extremely similar

ballet slippers nail polish on fingernails
Ballet Slippers by Essie
Adore-a-ball nail polish on fingernails
Adore-a-ball by Essie

Now, you would expect nail polish to be judged by colour yes?
Initially, the participants were presented with two label-less bottles. When asked to say which shade they preferred, 50% of participants couldn’t tell the shades apart. The other 50% chose the shade ‘Adore-a-ball’. However, when the participants were aware of the names of the shades, the majority chose ‘Ballet Slippers’.
So what is it about the name ‘Ballet Slippers’ which suddenly makes it a more attractive choice? Bias, that’s what.

Implicit vs Explicit Bias

Explicit bias is the reason you prefer dogs to cats. You can explain that dogs are cuddly, endlessly adoring, cute, lovable, love it when you rub their tummy etc whereas cats will scratch you if you dare touch their tummy (even though they rolled over and showed you it).
In the study above, it’s pretty hard to tell why the mere name of a nail polish changes people’s choices, but it can be explained with implicit bias.

Implicit bias is the reason behind why you prefer red to blue (or ballet slippers to adore-a-ball). Implicit bias is everywhere and can sometimes have quite alarming effects on the choices we make.
Implicit bias can also become dangerous. For example, people with an implicit bias against dogs are more likely to assume that a barking dog is aggressive and dangerous. And those with implicit bias against women are more likely to assume that a complaint from a woman carries less weight than that from a man. This is why in many exams and health care providers – gender, race, and sexual preferences are hidden to prevent bias from having an impact on marking or recommendations.

Stereotype Bias

This kind of bias again comes in two forms. Stereotype threat, and stereotype boost/lift. Now, these descriptions are going to be simplified to give you an idea of how they impact people.

Threat

Stereotype threat is when you feel at risk of conforming to a negative stereotype about your social group. For example, the dumb blonde stereotype. In a bid to show that you don’t conform to the stereotype, you try too hard. This then stresses you out, so you make a silly mistake and therefore conform.

What! - GIF from Legally Blonde
I know right

Boost/Lift

Conversely, stereotype boost occurs when you perform better than expected based on a stereotype about your social group. For example, Canadians have the stereotype of being polite and so will act politer than normal.

Now, threat and boost/lift will only apply if you’re aware of the stereotype or are reminded of it soon before your performance being measured which is a great example of…

Pt 2: Priming

Priming isn’t a type of bias but has a great impact on the choices we make and can make us fall victim to stereotype threat etc.

Think about it, if you’re constantly told that you’re bad at maths, or bad at spelling, you’ll eventually start to conform. And if you’re told you won’t like a certain food, you’ll be more likely to actually look for something you don’t like about it than if you were just left alone.

Priming also works when it comes to language and sentence structure. If you read the phrase ‘the yellow banana’ you’ll actually process the word ‘banana’ than if you read ‘the yellow sky’ because your brain has been primed to expect something which is actually yellow rather than something which is meant to be blue.

Read more in Pt 2: Priming and Choice