Outsmarting Prejudice

Whether subtle or serious, prejudice gone awry can have harmful consequences.

I recently learned about a simple strategy for disrupting prejudice, which involves appealing to the power of your reasoning skills. I learned about this strategy from a TED Talk I watched, titled Can Prejudice ever be a good thing?.

The speaker, Paul Bloom, starts his talk by introducing the concept of prejudice as a naturally occurring process. He presents a quote by the great philosopher William Hazlitt in his essay, On Prejudice:

“Without the aid of prejudice and custom, I should not be able to find my way across the room; nor know how to conduct myself in any circumstances, nor what to feel in any relation of life.”

William Hazlitt (1778–1830), On Prejudice

In other words, if I can’t prejudge my experience with something, how can I anticipate any consequences of my future actions? How can I learn from a mistake, or from something that harmed me? Our ability to prejudge things, then, is necessary for our survival. The problem comes when our tendency to prejudge something – or someone – goes awry. 

To demonstrate the idea of prejudice gone awry, Dr. Bloom presents the results from a 2015 study on racial bias, in which the researchers found that products sold on Ebay, such as baseball cards, received higher bids when the images in their ads showed the baseball cards being held by White hands, compared to ads where the same products were held by Black hands. 

To demonstrate a more serious, even life-threatening consequence of prejudice gone awry, Dr. Bloom presents the findings from a study done at Stanford University, again on racial bias. In this study, researchers found that individuals who identify as Black, who were found guilty of the murder of a White person, were more likely to be given the death penalty if they appeared more “prototypically Black”. 

“It turns out, holding everything else constant, you are considerably more likely to be executed if you look like the man on the right than the man on the left, and this is in large part because the man on the right looks more prototypically black, more prototypically African-American, and this apparently influences people’s decisions over what to do about him.”
-Dr. Paul Bloom

Whether subtle or serious, you can see that prejudice gone awry can have harmful consequences. Dr. Bloom presents two ways to disable the effects of prejudice.

So what does Dr. Bloom mean when he says you can break the habit of prejudging others by appealing to the power of reason?

The first strategy is to appeal to the power of your empathy. This strategy is described in detail in our article titled, The Power of Empathy.

The second strategy presented by Dr. Bloom involves appealing to the power of your reason.

Dr. Bloom argues that although you may have heard the phrases, “love thy neighbour” or “love thy enemy”, these goal are not realistic. Do we really love these people? Many people don’t even like their neighbour, let alone love them, but that doesn’t mean you want to cause them harm. You feel a certain obligation to treat them and their property with respect, because you understand that their life and their property are as important to them as yours is to you. You use reason to guide your behaviour toward others, not love. 

You can bind yourself to certain rules that will disable you from prejudging an individual based on irrelevant characteristics.

You can bind yourself to certain rules that will disable you from prejudging an individual based on irrelevant characteristics. One example of this is when orchestras audition their new musicians behind a screen or curtain. They do this because the only information that is relevant to their decision-making is the individuals’ ability to play their instrument. 

Another meaningful example presented by Dr. Bloom of how to bind yourself is when representatives of a country sign a constitution. A nation can decide that no matter how much one citizen, or a group of citizens may want to discriminate against individuals based on their protected characteristics (age, race, sex, religion, etc.), the nation has bound itself from those options.  

What steps can your organization take to bind itself from even accidentally prejudging a person based on irrelevant information?

Shifting Attitudes – part 1

AttitudesHow we treat someone is rooted in early social experiences and is embedded in our attitudes.

Researchers define two types of attitudes, explicit (self-reported) and  implicit(less accessible and automatic). For example, an individual might self-report that they are comfortable being around the elderly. However, implicit bias, which is more automatic and less accessible, towards the elderly shows up when we need to make quick decisions about where to sit on public transit. Implicit bias is what an objective third party sees in the choices we make.

Researchers agree that implicit bias is more resistant to change. At the age of 6, children’s implicit and explicit bias is about the same. Children will say they don’t like someone and will make choices that express that attitude. However as we grow older there tends to be an asymmetrical relationship between the two types of attitudes. Implicit bias remains constant while explicit bias decreases over time.

Summary of some research on implicit and explicit attitudes

  1. Studies dealing with the elderly have shown that intergroup contact can affect both explicit and implicit bias (Tam, Hewstone, Harwood, Voci, & Kenworthy, 2006).
  2. Fewer implicit prejudices have been found in children who are close friends with children from different ethnic groups, opposed to children with no such contact (Aberson, Shoemaker, & Tomolillo, 2004).
  3. Opportunities to build friendships with members of another group increases positive attitudes of the group for children and high school students

 

Aberson, C. L., Shoemaker, C.,& Tomolillo, C. (2004). Implicit bias and contact: The role of interethnic friendships. Journal of Social Psychology, 144, 335–347.

Tam, T., Hewstone, M., Harwood, J., Voci, A.,& Kenworthy, J. B. (2006). Intergroup contact and grandparent-grandchild communication : The effects of self disclosure on implicit and explicit biases against older people. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 9, 413–430.