Lisa Smith on Bias

Lisa Smith has out an interesting short video on bias (focusing on implicit bias). Smith has an expansive view of bias; she says, “a preference is a sort of bias.” In this view any sort of disposition is a bias. I think this is an overly broad view of the term.

Looking at the etymology, the term “bias” means something like angled, sloped, or sideways. “In the old game of bowls, it was a technical term used in reference to balls made with a greater weight on one side (1560s), causing them to curve toward one side.” The site quotes Herbert Spencer, who distinguishes a bias, which arises in some social context (education, politics) from “constitutional sympathies and antipathies.” So, in this view, judging people differently by the color of their skin is a bias, but enjoying the flavor of sugar arises from a “constitutional sympathy.”

The site also includes this great quote from Francis Bacon (1620): “For what a man had rather were true he more readily believes. Therefore he rejects difficult things from impatience of research; sober things, because they narrow hope; the deeper things of nature, from superstition; the light of experience, from arrogance and pride, lest his mind should seem to be occupied with things mean and transitory; things not commonly believed, out of deference to the opinion of the vulgar. Numberless in short are the ways, and sometimes imperceptible, in which the affections colour and infect the understanding.” What Bacon describes is what I think we accurately call bias. A bias is some disposition or habit or temptation to believe something for poor reasons. A bias, in this view, is always something bad and always something we should seek to avoid or overcome.

The complication is that our intellectual habits and our emotions are tightly linked. So a false belief, say, that someone with a particular skin tone is for that reason superior or inferior, typically gives rise to visceral emotional reactions toward different people, and such emotions can give rise to harmful actions.

Smith mentions a preference for blue over pink as a sort of bias. Obviously people do have all sorts of preferences that are not strictly “constitutional” (biological) in origin but rather the result of an individual’s particular experiences and reactions and thoughts. But I don’t want to call that a bias because there’s no intellectual content to preferring blue over pink. It’s not as though I’m saying (if I prefer blue) that other people should prefer blue or there’s some sort of universalizable reason to prefer blue. I just happen to prefer blue, and that’s fine, and it doesn’t cause any problems, and it’s fine if my preference here changes. By contrast, a visceral reaction against vaccines or against people of some particular skin tone arises from, or at least are influenced by, a set of particular beliefs which are false and which the person holds out of bias.

Smith then gets into implicit or free association tests. She points out that an association, say between hotdogs and ketchup, does not entail any normative belief. Most associations we have are benign and a means of mental efficiency, she notes, but some associations, particularly involving people, can be damaging. For example, in our culture a lot of people associate Black men with violence or Black women (or women generally) with oversexualization or Black people with poverty. Such expectations and associations “feed our beliefs,” Smith says. Such associations can lead a business manger, for example, to more-quickly discard resumes with Black-sounding names. Now, Smith says that the manager who does this does not necessarily even hold racist beliefs. I think the qualifier “explicit” is needed here; I think some underlying beliefs clearly are at work.

Smith makes the point that, to overcome implicit biases, often we have to actively work against them. This seems obviously right. For example, stripping names off of resumes might allow for more-fair evaluations, insofar as some names convey ethnicity or gender. However, the social science about such blind hiring is mixed, as Faye Flam reviews. Blind hiring seems to help, and my attitude is, it can’t possibly hurt.

Smith discusses some of the limitations of these association tests. And one thing that Smith points out is that not just white people can (say) associate Black men with violence and not just men can associate women with lower status. Black men and women can hold the same associations. People interested in taking Harvard’s implicit association tests can see the site for that.

Smith suggests a point about (as I’d put it) the interaction between our “fast” and “slow” brains. We’re not normally acting just on our associations; rather, usually, our “slower,” more-deliberate thinking also is at work. “We can’t use the implicit association test to predict behavior,” Smith notes.

There’s this peculiar dynamic at play, for those of us who hope for a post-racial future, that to get to that future we have to think seriously about “race” today. Obviously our culture has been highly racialized for centuries. That’s not just going to go away because we ignore it. Paradoxically, we can only make racism go away in the future by focusing, today, on the ways in which “race” continues to matter.


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