Friday, July 6, 2007

Test Your Bias

Reading a (Dutch) magazine on the toilet I chanced upon a column about discrimination and people applying for a job. The columnist (it's Ben Tiggelaar on the July 6, 2007 edition of Intermediair) wonders if discrimination is mostly a conscious or subconscious process.

(SF aficionados: cut to Peter Watts's Blindsight.)

So he recommends to do a test. His suggestion: Harvard's Implicit Association Test. I did. Well, that is: I did the first one, the skin tone IAT (they have a total of fourteen demo tests).

Tiggelaar says the following (translation mine):

Everyone who takes the test, is shocked by his/herself. The most people I know, reject discrimination in all its incarnations, but – in this Implicit Association Test – end up in the ‘Wilders’ category.
(Geert Wilders is the leader of the PVV, a Dutch political party at the far right of the political spectrum.)

My result:
I must say that I was relieved: somehow I suspected worse. Of course, there are thirteen more tests to take (which I will do after I finish the May slush).

Now the reason for Tiggelaar's column was that our Home Secretary (our minister in charge of the Home Office, whose title in Holland is Minister, and whose assistant is called Secretary. Confused already? Then go to Brussels...;-) Ter Horst is proposing to use anonymous job applications for government jobs. Which is throwing up a storm of protest and opinions: some think discrimination on the job market should be fought through education and agreements with the employers; others believe there is no discrimination; and some think all Turks should return to Marocco.

The point of his column -- and I must agree -- is that *if* discrimination is mainly a subconscious process, then an anonymous job application procedure, in which the first selection should be done while the name, sex, age, religion, and ethnic background of the applicant are withheld, is needed. Like Ter Horst wants.

Then -- Tiggelaar says -- the final selection committee should be a mirror image of our society (we're talking Holland here): 50% male, 50% female, 20% foreign, and graying hair at the temples.

Food for thought: while I still need to take the other thirteen tests (and don't know if these test actually do show subconscious bias), I do agree that the way we judge total strangers is most probably subconscious, for the most part.

Because I distinctly remember a course about dealing with customers I did some years ago, and the way first impressions work.

Question: At first impression, how fast do we -- on average -- make a judgment about a total stranger solely based on appearance?

Answer: in less than 10 seconds.

Question: How much of this first impression do we keep over time?

Answer: about 90%.

This baffled me at first, but I've come to believe that it's true. I find myself doing it: assessing strangers purely on appearance, without having talked to them. Then, if I find out I'm doing it, I have to make a mental effort to suppress this 'first impression judgment'.

I have to consciously force myself to withhold judgment until I know this person better.

Cutting back to Blindsight (and its theme that most of our actions are subconscious), I theorise that this might be a survival mechanism from the savannah: distinguish friend or foe very quickly. A mechanism that is not appropriate in modern society, but didn't have the time to evolve away (or, to play Devil's advocate, is waiting until this folly of a conscious culture has run its time).

Anyway, it makes me wonder: am I, deep inside, a sexist racist supremist alpha male whose conscious brain needs to supress these tendencies all the time (and probably unsuccesfully), or is my subconscious smarter than that, and is my conscious mind responsible, making quick calculations because it's taking up too much computing power as it is?

I don't know. But sometimes I feel like this:

behind the finer feelings--
this civilized veneer--
the heart of a lonely hunter
guards a dangerous frontier

As Rush drummer Neal Peart worded it on "Under Lock and Key" (from the Hold Your Fire album).