Undecided? You might be wrong about that.

 From the AAAS’s Science,** (ht to the NY Times):  People who declare themselves undecided may have non-conscious biases that are inclining them to a particular decision:

When deciding between choices, people usually feel as if they’re completely in control. They evaluate the criteria and weigh the available information before committing. And when that information doesn’t seem to tip the balance, they report that they are undecided. But psychologists know that decision-making is strongly affected by the unconscious mind. Might the unconscious mind of an undecided person already know what it will choose?

The answer is “Yes.”  By using an implicit associations test, the researchers were able to predict the undecideds decisions with 70% accuracy. 

So is this news to any feminist who has watched supposedly neutral people decide admissions, prizes or jobs?  Probably not.  But there are at least two points here worth noting:  Now when a colleague talks about neurtrality, we can whip out Science!  And it’s strong and recent evidence that the implicit association tests are connected to actual decisions. 

For standard implicit association tests, try here.

(Note:  for accuracy’s sake, I should note that the Times reports the study as principally concerned with the difference between people who could decide on examining the evidence and those whom the evidence left undecided.  I read the report just as I was thinking of how I could convince a group of people to take seriously the idea that they might really be bigots (of the nicest, least conscious sort, of course).  Hence, my take concerns evidence of bias of which one is not aware.)

**This is a press release; an editorial and the actual study require subscription or library access.

7 thoughts on “Undecided? You might be wrong about that.

  1. The idea that we’re not aware of — much less in control of — everything happening in our own minds is not new, of course. What’s surprising is how difficult its predecessor has been to remove.

  2. Noumena, I’ve been wondering whether there was ever a time in my life when I thought I could introspect and just see I wasn’t biased on some point.

    I think it’s important that the story here about implicit biases doesn’t appeal to Freudian unconscious desires. It’s much more Humean: We pick up associations from our experience. We need to add, of course, that the experience may come highly interpreted by people around us. And then the cognitive science-y point that we need to have a lot of stuff out of consciousness; if it all were conscious, we’d be very overloaded.

    Interestingly, it looks as though one problem people with schizophrenia have to deal with is that they don’t have all the filters on sensory input that non-schizophrenics have.

  3. You’re entirely right that it’s a Humean, rather than Freudian, approach. I think that’s a great way to make the point, too. :-)

    Anyways, I was thinking of two types of people when I made my earlier comment. First, the ones who vehemently deny any possibility of bias or discrimination — and hence the need for affirmative action programmes, or even just a `no-name, no-race’ stage of evaluating job applicants — because they just know that they’re not biassed. And, second, the tendency of a large number of philosophers to confidently assert p because clearly p. (Of course, these two types are not mutually exclusive.)

  4. And the two reactions work together. E.g., “I’m judging purely on merit when I say X is better; I am not biased; certainly not1”

    Given how many people I know who are totally confident that introspective reveals the absence of bias, I can’t quite figure out why that wasn’t ever tempting to me. I would wonder if it were a Catholic childhood of examining one’s conscience were it not for so many Catholic’s ability to discern so clearly that God doesn’t want women to be priests. Clearly!

    It’s a nice trick to make bias a matter of God speaking to one. That sort of takes the cake for displacement.

  5. There was some fantastic sales training I attended years ago and we studied “ODDS ARE.” In that, everyone filters what they hear through their history of events, upbringing etc… To prove the point they told a story…about some people stranded on an island. Some of the things they did were unscrupulous but one might say necessary. At the end the 28 or so of us ranked in order from 1 to 6 how much we respected each character. We had exactly 28 different combinations! Now if everyone hears the exact same story, shouldn’t we all feel the same? Is that kinda what you’re getting at? It seems that it is…

  6. BL, interesting. A lot of the implicit associations stuff is concerned with ways in which we agree in judgment. If you look at the site, you’ll see that, e.g., they’re looking at attitudes to women/men scientists. I’m sure they expect to find, and I’m pretty certain they do find, that most people taking the test count as biased against women’s participation in science.

    You’re right, though, that people might really vary on complex things, such as ratings of moral detailed moral behavior.

    As I write this, I suddenly realize that we might vary a great deal on more simple rankings: Which wine, chocolate, ice cream is best (as far as taste goes). The philosopher David Hume thought that in general aesthetic judgments were matters of taste, so he spent some time discussing why we privilege some tastes over others. Why does, e.g., the NY Times publish ratings of wine about experts? (Tho, of course, in the 18th century he wasn’t concerned about that particular publication!)

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