Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Unconscious Bias: Schemas

Schemas are non-conscious hypotheses. They are expectations or stereotypes that influence our judgments of others (regardless of our own group). For example, with regard to gender, we’re not just talking about men judging women; we’re also talking about women judging women. Men and women both downplay the contributions of women. With regard to race/ethnicity, we’re not just talking about whites judging minorities; we’re also talking about minorities judging minorities. Whites and minorities both downplay the contributions of minorities.Unconscious bias is NOT discrimination. 

Here’s an example of a schema from Wikipedia: A well-dressed businessman draws a knife on a vagrant. Onlookers may (and often do) "remember" the vagrant pulling the knife.

Modifying a schema is difficult. Here’s an example, also from Wikipedia: Bob thinks that chickens don't lay eggs. He then sees a chicken laying an egg. Instead of changing the part of his schema that says 'chickens don't lay eggs', he is likely to adopt the belief that the animal in question that he has just seen laying an egg is not a typical chicken!

Let us rework this example so it applies to something a bit closer to home: Bob thinks that women can’t do science. He then sees a woman doing science. Instead of changing the part of his schema that says 'women can’t do science ', he is likely to adopt the belief that the woman in question that he has just seen doing science is not a typical woman!

Schemas are applied more often under circumstances of: lack of critical mass; time pressure; stress from competing tasks; and ambiguity [1]. Consider your typical Astronomy Department. Rarely is there a critical mass of women (30%). Everyone is under time pressure and has too much to do. No one is likely to spend a lot of their time contemplating gender issues. We’re not supposed to. We’re scientists – we think about astronomy.

When do schemas affect evaluation outcomes? The short answer is all the time: resumes, job credentials, fellowship applications, hiring, award nominations, and promotions. Schemas influence group members’ expectations about how they will be judged. They allow efficient, if sometimes inaccurate, processing of information. They often conflict with consciously held or explicit attitudes. The good news is that they can change based on experience/exposure [2], [3], but as we saw in the example above, changing a schema requires work.

[1] Fiske (2002). Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11, 123-128.
[2] Nosek, Banaji, & Greenwald (2002). Group Dynamics: Theory, Research and Practice, 6, 101-115.                                                                                            
[3] Fiske, Cuddy, Glick, & Xu (2002). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82(6), 878-902. 

Previous posts on Unconscious Bias include A Personal Story and A Legacy of Patriarchy.

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