4 Horrible Biases That Are Baked Into Everybody's Brain
We're all subject to certain biases and fallacies that affect our thinking, like the confirmation bias, the broken window fallacy, and the fallacy fallacy (the false assumption that memorizing Wikipedia's list of cognitive faults for use in internet arguments will make you appear clever and compelling). But it gets far weirder than that. You see ...
We Perceive Black Men As Bigger And Stronger Than White Men
If we showed you photos of white and black men and asked you to rate how strong they appeared to be, you might reasonably ask if we were working on another porno, despite the entire industry taking out a restraining order against us last time. But when a qualified researcher asks that question, it's suddenly a harrowing insight into the power that stereotypes have over our subconscious reasoning. It's not fair.
950 American participants were shown photos of men who, unbeknownst to them, were of equal height and weight. They were then asked to estimate the height, weight, and strength of the men, and the black men were consistently judged to be larger and stronger. And the darker their skin was, the greater the assumption that they could overpower and bench-press the wimpy white men who were actually essentially identical to them.
The study's participants also believed that the black men in the photos were, in a hypothetical unarmed confrontation, more able to cause harm, and thus that police would be more justified in using force to stop them. Before you fire up your Outrage Machine, the point of this study was not to say "Everyone is secretly racist!" but rather "Everyone is, from birth, bombarded with countless stereotypes reinforced through subtle messaging that prompt us to make weird and unfortunate snap judgement calls." The study's black participants also judged black men to be stronger, although they did not agree that the men were potentially more dangerous. Go ahead and take a wild guess as to why.
Imagining a violent situation is not the same as facing one, and no single study can be used to make sweeping conclusions about society. But these findings align with other biases facing black Americans, like research showing that the age of black boys tends to be overestimated compared to their white peers (a 12-year-old white child caught shoplifting might be viewed as a kid making a mistake, while a 12-year-old black kid is basically a teenage "thug" who needs the book thrown at him).
That's all a bit depressing, but remember that the point of studying these biases is to help identify and address them. Other research suggests that with sufficient training, police officers can learn to tune out racial bias when making quick high-pressure decisions about the use of force.
We Misread People's Facial Expressions Based On Stereotypes
We also tend to view black faces as angry, even when their facial expression implies nothing more than "Waiting for the bus, and maybe thinking about video games or whatever." In this study, participants were shown photos of men and women of various races displaying a variety of emotions, and were asked to make split-second decisions as to what those emotions were. Two clear biases emerged: Black men were perceived as angry even when they weren't, and women of all races were perceived as happy even when they weren't. Please at least pretend to act surprised.
Again, these are subconscious decisions made by people who are generally not overtly racist or sexist. If they had a minute to think about the scenario, they would realize that the black man they were looking at is only tired or bored, or that one woman isn't as cheerful and open to a conversation with a total stranger as they thought. But we often don't take a minute to think things through, as evidenced by, well, the screaming morass that is modern society.
The takeaway almost seems weird here. "Oh, so I shouldn't assume that women are kind? You want me to start thinking that they're all frigid bitches until they prove otherwise? What's your game, Cracked?" But the point is that our brains are full of visual shortcuts that sort people into neat little boxes. We wouldn't be able to get through the day otherwise, because reflecting on the rich inner lives of the hundreds of strangers you routinely pass on the street would drive you to madness. Sometimes all we need to know is that the guy in the "I love knives and hate maps" shirt is probably not the person to ask for directions.
We're Distrustful Of Foreign Accents And Too Trusting Of Confidence
Accents are loaded with preconceptions. At the simplest level, we're probably going to assume that someone with a strong Southern accent is from the South. More stereotypically, we tend to associate that accent with a certain level of dimwittedness, and we would find it plain weird if a voice mentally lumped in with twanging banjos suddenly offered commentary on a British soccer game. But the associations we make with accents get even stranger than that.
In a study of Anglophone Canadians, participants were asked to rate how believable they found a series of recorded English statements. These statements were made with various degrees of confidence, they were short and neutral (as in, there were no contentious political stances or arguments about who's best at mocking Americans), and they were spoken by either Anglophone Canadians, Francophone Canadians, or Australians. And the listeners all found their fellow Anglophones far more trustworthy ... unless the foreign speaker seemed very sure of themselves.
There are two conflicting biases at work here. We're inclined to be distrusting of people who sound different than us, which is presumably a holdover from the days when strangers might be inclined to bash our head in and take our stuff. But we're also inclined to believe people who sound sure of themselves, which is why no politician ever got elected on the slogan "Maybe we can improve the country somewhat if we work hard and also get a little lucky!"
Distrust in a modern context doesn't mean that anyone who pronounces vowels differently from us must be a sleazy backstabbing criminal. But if you need directions because your phone was stolen by seagulls, you're more likely to consult and believe someone who sounds like you, unless the person with the weird accent makes a convincing argument that you should take a different route.
Now, it's one thing for an idiot tourist to ignore helpful advice, but the greater concern here is that accented English speakers will be taken less seriously at school, on the job, or even while arguing in front of a jury. We're more inclined to assume that they're talking out of their weird foreign ass, unless they really go out of their way to prove otherwise. So if you want to sound credible, try to talk as if you've never been wrong about anything. It's worked for white men for centuries.
Your Brain Automatically Makes Assumptions About Race Based On Social Status
It's easy to forget that race is a fluid concept. History is full of stories of mixed-race people passing as a member of a dominant racial group, or being declared an inferior subhuman based on one distant ancestor they weren't even aware they had. Our brains don't seem to like categorizing random strangers as "complicated," and that leads to some weird judgement calls.
In a study in which participants were asked to categorize computer-generated faces with a spectrum of racial identities, people wearing business attire were more likely to be declared white, while people in janitorial gear were more likely to be considered black. And the more racially ambiguous a face was, the more participants relied on the clothes to make their decision.
In another study, interviewers talked with 12,686 adults once a year over 19 years. They asked questions about what was going on in their lives, and then the interviewers were asked to racially identify the person they'd just talked to. The identity provided by the interviewer didn't always match how the respondent themselves identified, and 20% of respondents experienced at least one change in racial classification, sometimes even when they'd had the same interviewer the previous year.
Employment, education, income, martial status, and living situation all factored into these decisions. If you're a biracial married suburbanite, you're likely to be declared white by strangers, while a single man who lives downtown and isn't terribly well off will be deemed black. Gender stereotypes were also a factor of course. Time spent in prison, for example, reduced the odds of a man being deemed white, but it didn't factor into how women were judged, because we've got a whole different set of wildly unfair assumptions about them.
This generally isn't intentional, but it's an easy way for our brains to confirm lazy stereotypes. And once again, the solution is to be a grown-up who stops and thinks for a minute before acting on your assumptions, which we're sure everyone will do from now on thanks to this world-changing, revelatory article.
For more, check out 7 Racist And Sexist Ads That Are Shockingly Recent - The Spit Take:
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