The Insidiousness of Unconscious Bias in Schools

From the article by Seth Gershnson and Thomas S. Dee at Brookings:

Humans frequently make automatic decisions at a subconscious level. The human brain’s capacity for reflexive decisionmaking is what Nobel Laureate Daniel Khaneman calls “System 1” (as opposed to the more analytical, thoughtful, deliberate decision making of “System 2”) in the best-selling “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” This evolutionary adaptation was, and is, sometimes necessary for survival. However, these automatic responses occur via the rapid processing of new information through existing patterns of thought. Thus, because our automatic responses are shaped by our lived experiences and the broader social contexts in which we live and work, a pervasive byproduct of reflexive decisionmaking is unconscious bias (UB), which is also referred to as implicit bias or implicit social cognition.

Specifically, UB is the phenomenon in which stereotypes, positive or negative, influence decisions and behaviors without the individual consciously acting on the stereotype or being aware that he or she is doing so. Moreover, UB can occur even when individuals know or believe the stereotype to be false.

The insidiousness of UB is that it can create self-fulfilling prophecies that create and perpetuate inequities between in- and out-groups, even when the initial stereotype was incorrect (and there was no pre-existing difference between in- and out-group members). This post outlines some promising interventions we identify in a recent report, commissioned by Google’s Computer Science Education Research Division, that can short-circuit the recursive processes and self-fulfilling prophecies triggered by UB.

In this report, we argue that the consequences of UB may be particularly salient in the hierarchical environments of schools. Specifically, UB likely perpetuates socio-economic, gender, and racial gaps in educational outcomes such as academic performance, engagement with school, course and major choice, and persistence in higher education, particularly among historically disadvantaged and underrepresented groups such as low-income and racial-minority students. These gaps in educational outcomes then manifest in corresponding workplace disparities in pay, promotions, and employment.

Indeed, there is ample evidence of UB in educational settings, both in experimental labs and “in the field” with real individuals who were unaware of their participation in an experiment. For example, Moss-Racusin and colleagues conducted a lab experiment in which science faculty at research universities reviewed fictitious applications for a hypothetical lab assistant position and systematically rated male “applicants” higher than otherwise-identical female “applicants.” In a similar field experiment, Milkman and colleagues emailed meeting requests from fictitious prospective doctoral students to professors and found that white male “students” received more, and faster, responses than female and non-white students, particularly in higher-paying STEM careers like computer science and engineering. A recent field experiment conducted by one of us and colleagues found that the instructors of online courses were nearly twice as likely to respond to discussion-forum comments placed by students who were randomly assigned white-male names. Consistent with a UB interpretation, the pro-male bias was observed among both male and female faculty in these studies. The K-12 context is also ripe with suggestive, quasi-experimental evidence of pervasive UB in the form of systematic grading biases and student-teacher racial match effects.

Additionally, individuals from stereotyped out-groups themselves react negatively to seemingly innocuous environmental factors, such as the demographic composition of a classroom, the race or sex of an instructor or proctor, and even the design and decoration of the classroom. One example of this is the phenomenon of stereotype threat, whereby the mere threat of being stereotyped by a white (male) instructor, even when no outright bias is expressed, may distract black (female) students, ultimately leading to poor performance on exams and even disengagement from school.

Read the full article.

 

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