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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Understanding Poverty

 

In late 2016, Busted: America’s Poverty Myths is a five part series from On the Media exploring the way poverty is portrayed in the United States and the realities that people face. The episodes include (descriptions come from On the Media):

  • The Poverty TourWelfare advocate Jack Frech has taken reporters on “poverty tours” of Athens County, Ohio, for years. But has media attention made any difference in the lives of the Appalachian poor?
  • Who Deserves to be Poor? — The notion that poverty stems from a lack of will power and a poor work ethic is as old as America. Why that needs to be dispelled.
  • When the Safety Net Doesn’t Catch You — Government assistance in the United States helps millions out of poverty, but often the most needy fall through the cracks.
  • Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook: Poverty in America Edition — When reporting on poverty, the media fall into familiar traps. How to steer clear of stereotypes and seek insight.

 

Doctors’ biases mean black men don’t get the same treatment in healthcare

From the article on Medical Xpress:

A new qualitative study has shown that previous bias and fear of black men likely result in them not getting the same healthcare as white male patients.

Published by the Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities, the study by Marie Plaisime, a 2014 graduate of Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health and current Howard University student, found that health providers largely perceive black male patients with bias, fear and discomfort.

These findings in “Healthcare Providers’ Formative Experiences with Race and Black Male Patients in Urban Hospital Environments” back up past quantitative studies that found that black men are less likely to receive cardiac medical procedures such as cardiac catheterizations and coronary angioplasties compared to white men presenting with identical symptoms.

Plaisime’s work on this study was conducted under Jennifer Taylor, PhD, associate professor in the Dornsife School of Public Health.

“Racial bias in healthcare is worrying because one of the higest values of medical practice is to ‘do no harm,'” Taylor said. “Whether explicit or implicit, our racial biases can direct patients to different and unequal treatments that do not make them whole. No one goes into medicine wanting this to happen, so we must look at both our personal and professional socialization to check in on how those experiences may influence our actions as caregivers.”

Participants in the study included physicians, nurses and medical students from two urban university hospitals in the United States. Interviews were conducted with them to gather qualitative data on how formative childhood, personal and professional experiences with race and black men influences interactions with male, black patients today.

Plaisime and her team found themes across the interviews that were reflective of personally-mediated racism and concluded with findings of how the perception of black males and cognitive dissonance appear to influence providers’ approaches with black male patients.

Both black and white medical providers who were interviewed described examples when black male patients were treated differently based on race.

For example, one physician noted, “I’ve had … a black patient who I think had not been offered a procedure because of either where he was economically or where he was assumed to be economically because of his race. He clearly needed to be catheterized for his presentation and it was suggested that we do medical management. I spoke with the cardiologist and as soon as we started talking, he said, ‘Oh well, of course, we’ll cath’ him.’ And so, like that, it changed… certainly have enough anecdotal experience to think that people are probably [being] treated differently based on race.”

Furthermore, white providers described experiencing a sense of fear or discomfort and discussed their lack of exposure to black males. In contrast, black providers shared their frustration with media portrayal of black men, the pressure they feel to avoid confirming negative stereotypes associated with black culture, and instances of patients discriminating against them.

Read the full article.

Warning: Stereotyping Can Harm Patients’ Health

A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine on October 20th explored the impact of stereotyping in health care setting has on patient health and well-being. The researchers interviewed an estimated 1,500 people aged 50 and over as part of the U.S. Health and Retirement Study. They found that people who felt at-risk of being stereotyped on the basis of weight, age, race, gender, or social class in the healthcare setting we more likely to:

  • have hypertension
  • be depressed
  • rate their own health more poorly
  • be more distrustful of their doctors
  • feel dissatisfied with their care
  • be less likely to use highly accessible preventive care, including the flu vaccine.

Read a description of the study.

Read the full study report.