How to talk about bias (and how not to)

Some important stuff summarised here! (Caveat: I have not had a chance to look up the original studies.)

In several experiments, Prof. Michelle Duguid of Washington University in St. Louis and Prof. Melissa Thomas-Hunt of the University of Virginia studied whether making people aware of bias would lessen it. They informed some people that stereotypes were rare and told others that stereotypes were common, then asked for their perceptions of women. Those who read that stereotypes were common rated women as significantly less career-oriented and more family-oriented. Even when instructed to “try to avoid thinking about others in such a manner,” people still viewed women more traditionally after reading that a vast majority held stereotypes….

Why would knowledge about stereotype prevalence lead to greater stereotyping? We can find clues in research led by Prof. Robert Cialdini at Arizona State University. In a national park, Professor Cialdini’s team tried to stop people from stealing petrified wood by posting: “Many past visitors have removed the petrified wood from the park, changing the state of the Petrified Forest.” Even with this warning, theft rates stood at 5 percent. So they made the sign more severe: “Your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time.” This warning influenced theft, but not in the direction you’d expect: stealing jumped from 5 percent to almost 8 percent.

The message people received was not “Don’t steal petrified wood,” but “Stealing petrified wood is a common and socially acceptable behavior.” We have the same reaction when we learn about the ubiquity of stereotypes. If everyone else is biased, we don’t need to worry as much about censoring ourselves.

If awareness makes it worse, how do we make it better? The solution isn’t to stop pointing out stereotypes. Instead, we need to communicate that these biases are undesirable and unacceptable.

Professor Cialdini’s team slashed the theft rate to 1.67 percent by adding a simple sentence to the sign:

“Please don’t remove the petrified wood from the park.”

Professors Duguid and Thomas-Hunt used a similar approach to prevent bias awareness from backfiring.

Rather than merely informing managers that stereotypes persisted, they added that a “vast majority of people try to overcome their stereotypic preconceptions.” With this adjustment, discrimination vanished in their studies.