Friday, March 30, 2012

Hidden Biases & how it affects us

How many of us comment sarcastically and critically on the driving skills whenever we see a woman driving a car?
How instantly, we bring a doll as a gift for a girl child and a car for a boy!
Engineering!...hmmm, my son will be and daughter will be a Doctor!
How many of the boys visit their kitchen ?

We do most of these instantly, without even thinking as something which comes so natural. These are unconscious or automatic biases which all of us have in us, in some form or the other and in varying degrees. Most of us like to deny their presence and have this 'not me' syndrome.The ability to quickly and automatically categorize people is a fundamental quality of the human mind. Categories give order to life, and every day, we group other people into categories based on social and other characteristics. This is the foundation of stereotypes, prejudice and, ultimately, discrimination.
Social scientists believe children begin to acquire prejudices and stereotypes as toddlers. Many studies have shown that as early as age 3, children pick up terms of racial prejudice without really understanding their significance.
People will embrace anecdotes that reinforce their biases, but disregard experience that contradicts them. The statement "Some of my best friends are _____" captures this tendency to allow some exceptions without changing our bias.
Mass media routinely take advantage of stereotypes as shorthand to paint a mood, scene or character. Nothing can explain it better than the hype created by the media around the "Anna campaign". It literally whipped up the pent up frustations of the middle class.
Biases and behavior
A growing number of studies show a link between hidden biases and actual behavior. In other words, hidden biases can reveal themselves in action, especially when a person's efforts to control behavior consciously flags under stress, distraction, relaxation or competition.
Studies have found, for example, that school teachers clearly telegraph prejudices, so much so that some researchers believe children of color and white children in the same classroom effectively receive different educations. The other side of biases is a complex (inferiority). I remember how as a student of a 'Government School', we always had a complex when we compared ourselves with those studying in 'Public Schools' (private schools) and this did affect our interactions in public debates etc. Its a different thing that we competed equally well (in fact better) in competitive exams but the bias remained. Remember the recent gyan of Sri Sri Ravi shankar wherein he mentioned that 'Government schools' are breeding grounds for naxalism!
Experiments are being conducted to determine whether a strong hidden bias in someone results in more discriminatory behavior. But we can learn something from even the first studies:
• Those who showed greater levels of implicit prejudice toward, or stereotypes of, black or gay people were more unfriendly toward them.
• Subjects who had a stronger hidden race bias had more activity in a part of the brain known to be responsible for emotional learning when shown black faces than when shown white faces.
Studies indicate that African American teenagers are aware they are stigmatized as being intellectually inferior and that they go to school bearing what psychologist Claude Steele has called a "burden of suspicion." Such a burden can affect their attitudes and achievement.
Similarly, studies found that when college women are reminded their group is considered bad at math, their performance may fulfill this prophecy.
Scientific research has demonstrated that biases thought to be absent or extinguished remain as "mental residue" in most of us. Studies show people can be consciously committed to egalitarianism, and deliberately work to behave without prejudice, yet still possess hidden negative prejudices or stereotypes. Do we all have a bias (most of us will deny though) that students belonging to 'weaker sections' are laggards and basically 'inferior'! This is one of the hidden (well, may not be as much) which seems to be only getting stronger with time. It may have nothing to do with the actual intelligence or performance of such students (they may actually be 'superior') but the bias emanates from the fact that there is 'reservation' for them and thus a green channel while others struggle and thus a negative prejudice.
Have you also noticed how most of the Indians continue to mental slaves of the white skin! - whether its Private airlines in India or star Hotels, it is appalling how some of these staff will continue to fish out favours (jumping the queue or attending to them while the lesser mortals of others (Indians) wait. Some may say its 'athithi devo bhava' but is it so? Think about it. Its a clear case of reverse racial bias!Leading to discrimination?
It is possible unconscious prejudices and stereotypes may also affect court jury deliberations and other daily tasks requiring judgments of human character.
People who argue that prejudice is not a big problem today are, ironically, demonstrating the problem of unconscious prejudice. Because these prejudices are outside our awareness, they can indeed be denied.
Learned at an early age
The first step may be to admit biases are learned early and are counter to our commitment to just treatment.
In such an environment, different views are welcomed, punishment is not harsh or capricious, and these children generally think of people positively and carry a sense of goodwill and even affection.
'Feeling' unconscious bias
Psychologists at Harvard, the University of Virginia and the University of Washington created "Project Implicit" to develop Hidden Bias Tests — called Implicit Association Tests, or IATs, in the academic world — to measure unconscious bias. Hidden Bias Tests measure unconscious, or automatic, biases. A stereotype is an exaggerated belief, image or distorted truth and based on images in mass media, or reputations passed on by parents, peers and other members of society. Stereotypes can be positive or negative. A prejudice is an opinion, prejudgment or attitude. Prejudices are often accompanied by ignorance, fear or hatred.
But there is another aspect of the very experience of taking a test of hidden bias that may be helpful. Many test takers can "feel" their hidden prejudices as they perform the tests. We would like to believe that when a person has a conscious commitment to change, the very act of discovering one's hidden biases can propel one to act to correct for it. It may not be possible to avoid the automatic stereotype or prejudice, but it is certainly possible to consciously rectify it.
It can be easy to reject the results of the tests as "not me" when you first encounter them. But that's the easy path. To ask where these biases come from, what they mean, and what we can do about them is the harder task.
Recognizing that the problem is in many others — as well as in ourselves — should motivate us all to try both to understand and to act.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Head in the cloud & social isolation- random thoughts

I was going through the latest edition of “Time” magazine (dated March 12, 2012) and was struck by two unrelated articles. One was on “your head is in the cloud” by Paul (the author of “Origins”) and the other one is “living alone is the new Norm” by Klinenberg. There is then a third issue which is fast gaining menacing proportion and that is 'web or net addiction'. All these three issues sort of highlight the growing role of the web in our lives and how it has been shaping our social psyche.
While the life truly seems to have become so much easier with the “Google search engine” and with the advent of smart phones, we are increasingly outsourcing our memory to such tools and are somehow very sure that the information will be instantly and continuously available. And this is changing our cognitive habits. While the horizon of the information spectrum and the speed with which it’s available is really welcome, I do think that somewhere, it is hampering our natural ability to think and this also is affecting our memory and retention power. I still recall how, we, as a kid used to remember the flags of the countries, their capital, currencies, languages and so on. Betsy Sparrow of Columbia University, based on her experiments has concluded that when we don’t know the answer, we tend to think not of the answer but where we can find the nearest web connection instead of the subject of the question itself. It is also a fact that we don’t remember information as well if we are sure to find it again easily when compared with the situation when it might become unavailable. We get conditioned in being lazy mentally that we don’t encode the information internally. While, some may argue that what’s the need to store things in mind and burden it over things which are otherwise available outside our system, the other side of it is that mind has certain capacity to retain and keep churning information based on competitive selectivity and keeping it idle or not using it to its capacity rusts it prematurely. So, what is it? Is it we turning into a cyborg or this symbiosis with digital devices is just a variant of transactive memory where humans are being replaced with digital engines.
However, one can’t Google context. Skills like critical thinking and analysis are native to human mind and can’t be outsourced beyond a point. As Daniel Willingham, a professor at University of Virginia puts “factual knowledge must precede skills”. It’s strange how, with the advent of “Facebook” etc, we have got so used to the virtual world and virtual friends that it’s almost like a vacuum when one is suddenly deprived of an internet or web accessibility. We are forgetting to go out and mingle and feel fresh air. That way, the web addiction, is also affecting our physical health adversely. It has affected our interpersonal skills and our ability to deal with people, especially among the young. The number of friends, one has on Facebook is taken as a sign of one’s popularity and it doesn’t matter how many of them are actually friends and meet regularly. The question is whether advent of web –socialising has actually diminished the social bonding and thus reduced the quality of life?
A related issue, though, not so apparent in terms of its interconnectivity to web based outsourcing of our knowledge skills is solitary living. As per 2011 census, nearly 33 million Americans which is about 28% of its households, live alone. And the percentage is as high as 47% in Sweden and 34% in Britain. India also has about 5% of its folks living alone. Does the rise of soloists signals the ultimate atomization of the modern world. Robert D Putnam in his book “Bowling Alone”, published in 2000, has argued that social splintering has diminished the quality of life in US. More recently, in “The Lonely American” Harvard psychiatrists Jacqueline Olds & Richard S Schwartz opine that “increased aloneness” and “the movement towards greater social isolation” are damaging health and happiness. Interestingly, there’s little evidence that rise of living alone is making people lonely. Its the quality of social interaction that determines loneliness – the “feel alone” rather than “live alone” phenomenon. Klinenberg, a professor at New York University concludes in his study that most singletons are not lonely souls. For those, who live alone by choice, it serves a purpose – pursue individual freedom, personal control and self realization. I still remember my answer vividly when asked for the reason as to why I preferred to go on a 12 weeks sabbatical to LSE (a paid one of course) which was “for introspection and self realization”! In the age of digital media and ever expanding social networks, living alone offer time and space for restorative solitude.