Scientist To Speak On The Unconscious Biases That Hold Sway Over Our Actions

By Anne Constable
The Santa Fe New Mexican.

The United States is now free from many obvious forms of discrimination based on gender, ethnicity, race, religion, age and other factors.

But it is not free from “unconscious bias.” Scientists say most of us have it.

Unconscious bias surfaces in performance reviews, when words like “assertive” are used to describe a woman in a negative way but compliment a man.

It shows when white police officers shoot unarmed black men.

It rears its head when skilled older workers are turned down for jobs.

And it appears when female students receive less mentoring than their male counterparts.

Even when we think we are treating people fairly, we might be giving in to these hidden biases, says Jennifer L. Raymond of Stanford University, a neuroscientist who is coming to Santa Fe this week to speak about this less attractive human trait that is becoming a hot topic among researchers.

“Most people want to be fair because that is the right thing to do, and it is in the best interest of our institutions not to choose just white, male talent,” Raymond said. “But there is a lot of data showing that is not what we do.”

Our judgments about people’s character, talent and potential are shaped by images we have been exposed to, she said.

Detecting bias is a growing business. Mahzarin Banaji, a Harvard professor, and Anthony Greenwald, a professor at the University of Washington, are pioneers in an association test that explores implicit bias. One company launched recently is developing software that it believes can spot gender bias in job descriptions and performance reviews. Some scientists are trying to capture images of brain activity of people who may be acting on unconscious biases.

And other research is focused on how to get rid of unwanted learning, like the persistent memories that torment people with post-traumatic stress disorder.

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