The Basis of Bias: Memory as a Misnomer

A quick read of the New York Times today revealed four articles that fascinated me, all because they dealt with the same topic: We are unreliable narrators of our own lives and experiences, and this shortcoming affects others. In other words, our memories and perceptions fail us, repeatedly, in turn influencing our professional and personal interactions. Let me give you some examples.

Picture taken from An article that really hit home: an analysis of words used in the Rate My Professor website of 14 million reviews used to describe men vs women professors. According to the article, “…male professors are brilliant, awesome and knowledgeable. Women are bossy and annoying, and beautiful or ugly.” Put more broadly, “people tend to think more highly of men than women in professional settings, praise men for the same things they criticize women for, and are more likely to focus on a woman’s appearance or personality and on a man’s skills and intelligence.” For example, the included graphic shows the number of times male and female professors are referred to as brilliant, by discipline. Check out the interactive chart, created by Ben Schmidt, for more examples in which you can type in any adjective and see whether it is used more frequently in men or women.

2. A review of an Israeli study in which authors concluded that elementary teachers overestimate science and math ability in boys and underestimate it in girls. How did researchers conclude this? When teachers scored math and science exams anonymously, they graded girls higher. When they knew the names of the students taking the exams, they scored boys higher. Even more troubling was how this influenced future student performance in high school: while “boys who had been encouraged when they were younger performed significantly better… girls who had been discouraged by their elementary schoolteachers were much less likely than the boys to take advanced courses.

3. A thoughtful commentary regarding the public health programs in which we emotionally want to invest versus those in which we intuitively should invest. Example: preventing sudden cardiac death in athletes (expensive, influences relatively few teenagers) versus reducing teen suicides and driving accidents (inexpensive, influences many teenagers). Despite these differences, guess which issue has established medical guidelines, national support and current enactment in several countries? You guessed it: preventing sudden cardiac death in athletes.

4. The well-publicized case of Brian William’s memory lapse regarding being shot down in a helicopter. Sounds egregious and disrespectful, right? But before you judge, consider that thorough research over the years suggests that the memory is an ever-changing, unreliable, incredibly biased narrative of our past. Simply asking people to talk about a fictional issue or event will dramatically increase the likelihood of them thinking erroneously that such an event happened directly to them.

Argh! What’s my point? Only that memory and perception are faulty. The more we view them as fixed and absolute, the more we decrease the likelihood of equity and fairness in our experiences as well as those around us.


2 thoughts on “The Basis of Bias: Memory as a Misnomer

  1. Its amazing to realize how flawed we are — in our assessments of people, the present and the past. I think the “brilliant” debate is really fascinating and disturbing. Clearly these ideas are very internalized because I don’t think many people would admit to having these biases — and in fact — probably aren’t even aware of them. That would be the part of the study that I wish we could know: how many people who are enlightened about gender issues fall into this trap of language bias? What does it mean? Would I pass this test? I think we should begin a ‘brilliant woman professor’ campaign on twitter.

    • Great points! And I think that no matter how conscious or aware you are about bias, it is very pervasive and very difficult to rid yourself of entirely. So yes, let’s get that campaign going 🙂

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