• Oops! It's an implicit bias

    Women suck at maths

    Yes, you read that right. We don’t mean to, but that's what we all think. We just don’t admit to it. It’s called an implicit bias.

    Self test

    If you want to check your own unconscious prejudices about gender, race or other issues, you can do an online test on this website . This website allows you to choose a set of questions for your country of origin, which is important, because Dutch people might have different associations about – for instance – unreliable politicians to Americans. Give it a try – you’ll be unhappily surprised!

    ‘Nobody is immune’, says Jennifer Saul, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield in the UK. ‘We do it all the time. It’s unconscious, automatic and happens to us without us knowing. If we were aware of it, it would be against our strongest convictions!’

    This Thursday Saul will explain the key unconscious biases that psychology has uncovered and their implications in the first edition of the annual Aspasia Lecture, an initiative in the NWO Aspasia programme, whose main aim is to increase the number of women in academia’s higher echelons.

    Horrible thing

    Saul says: ‘One of the oldest and best-known surveys is about the effect of the first name on somebody’s resumé when you apply for a job. If the name is male, you have a bigger chance of being hired. Only if one CV is extremely good or extremely bad compared to all the others does this not happen. In general, though, it’s a substantial effect that we’ve known for over 20 years. The horrible thing is, knowing that it exists is not enough to prevent you from doing it yourself!’

    A recent study on this subject had a most disturbing outcome: both men and women are equally prone to this kind of unconscious, automatic judgement and, even worse, age makes no difference. Young people are just as biased as older people.

    We make implicit judgments about a lot of things, Saul explains. It’s a big field. It’s not just about gender, but also about race, religion and weight. For instance, we have a lot of implicit biases about overweight people.

    Saul explains: ‘The evolutionary aspect might help you make very fast decisions about dangerous situations. If you see the kettle boiling over, you just step back as quickly as possible. You don’t stand around thinking “Oh well, I see this boiling water is going to spill all over me. What should I do next?” You have to act fast, on impulse. So for those kinds of situations it’s very helpful, but for social group processes, the same process can lead us horribly astray.’

    What to do?

    So what should we do to avoid this? The problem is we don’t know yet. Different psychological experiments have been conducted, but they don’t offer much of a solution. Saul explains: ‘For instance, just trying very hard not to be biased might actually make things worse. We don’t know how exactly. Suppression may work for a little while, but then you get a rebound effect. It’s difficult to say to yourself “Don’t think about race or gender” whilst reviewing somebody’s job application. You can’t do that all the time.’

    Two processes seem to work a little, according to Saul. Firstly, before you start reading a resumé, make yourself think about a really successful woman in that field. Another possible solution is to think about a time that you yourself turned out to be very biased and very wrong about a particular person. That will alert you. Saul says: ‘Don’t think about the time that you think you made unbiased decisions, because then you’ll think “Oh, I can do this, I’m so good and I won’t fall for it.” So remember your earlier mistakes. Other than that, we still don’t know what the solution is. Including women in committees doesn’t make a difference, as they just make the same mistakes as men.’

    Check out the UK bias project here  and Jennifer Saul’s website:


    Aspasia Lecture JOHN, JANE, YASSER, YASMIN, How implicit biases influence our perception of others
    Organized by the Faculty of Philosophy in cooperation with Studium Generale Groningen and the Groningen Centre for Philosophy and Society
    Date: Thursday 11 April
    Time & location: 8-9.30 p.m. | Academy Building, Broerstraat 5  Admission: free