Sterling Grey, Account Director at Chemistry, thinks you’re prejudiced!  Here’s why


Prejudice, noun

Preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience.

When you read the title of this article your brain is likely to do one of two things.

  1. Some of you will protest, “I. Am. Not. Prejudice.”
  2. Some of you will concede “Meh, sometimes I am.”

No matter what your brain-jerk reaction was, the thing to focus on here is that without having to think about it, your brain delivered a response. You didn’t ask it to do anything. You could stop here and fall down the rabbit hole of “who/what is actually in control here?” Save that for later.

 I want to continue to tug at the thread of my last article where I made began to question the vulnerability of the Resume to unconscious bias and therefore its validity as a legit hiring tool. Check it out here: “Resumes are nonsense and we all know it.”

If you’re willing to concede here for a moment that our brain makes moves on its own without our steerage, then the luxury of reason should deliver you to the conclusion that our brains can, will, and do exercise pre-judgement. You look at a person and make several crude calculations about them based on their race, their appearance, their sex (including how they identify and the preferences you assume they project), among a host of other things. Then you use some bizarre algorithm to arrive at your personal conclusion about who this person is.

If we continue to pull further and unravel more of our psychological fabric we begin to reveal some interesting truths:

  1. Our brains take serious shortcuts to make almost instant decisions about almost everything around us.
  2. The basis for those decisions is our cultural environment and personal experience.
  3. These snap decisions are often wrong!

Faulty Predications

 On the first day of my grad school Behavioural Economics class, taught by a professor whose name I remember less than all the accolades and abbreviations he held, we were given a quick test. A test that I would later find out has been repeated throughout top Universities with students who are meant to be the brightest people on the planet I suppose. I mean, why else would they be there right?

Here it is: A bat and a ball cost $1.10. If the bat cost $1 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?

Here’s the rub, over 50% of these “brilliant” minds get the answer wrong and jump to the conclusion that the ball cost $0.10. If you’ve stopped to think about this a bit more and applied some reasoning, or in this case algebra, you’ll realize that the ball must cost $0.05.

The reason so many smart people will choose ten cents without thinking is that our brains primary engine runs on instinct, which is unconscious, rather than conscious judgement. This makes our brains super fallible and is what leads us to bias.

Now direct this at people. In an instant, you will categorize someone into a number of groups. What your lizard brain is attempting to do is the primitive, but important exercise of determining if this person is like you, and therefore to be trusted, or different and to be feared. My mind desperately wants to believe that we have evolved beyond this rudimentary and binary thought process. However, it seems the reality is that no matter how much computing power we’ve managed to add over the years, somewhere in the basement of our mind’s server farm we’re still running some legacy programs.

Now, I’m not prepared to go as far as to say that we are hardwired to fear people who are different from us. If you’ve ever seen a diverse group of children interact it would be hard to defend that hypothesis. The next reasonable culprit would be our environment and experiences.

“Men favour men and thus women earn less for the same work”

Sterling Grey

Learned Discrimination

Let’s take for granted that we are not born knowing how, or why to mistrust, dislike, or pre-judge people. Then reason would stand to enforce that we learn these things.

First, our parents, teachers, or other guardians pass down their own bias that was likely inherited from their caregivers and informed by their unique experience.

Second, we take these little nuggets and either continue to source evidence to strengthen them, or we find evidence to the contrary and form our own original version. Exposure to our cultural context lends itself to shaping our system of beliefs and what will coagulate to form our “Values.” Notwithstanding some serious life event, values are slow to change. That is to say, changing someone’s mind is hard to do.

If it is the case that we use our belief or value matrix to make these instantaneous decisions and it follows that once we make a judgement it becomes hard to change our minds, what we are describing is unconscious biased. You see someone, make a split decision, and pass judgement. You. Are. Prejudice.

We Know We’re Wrong

So often we think about the most obvious implications of this. Men dominate positions of power over women in just about every facet of life. White men dominate over both women and other ethnicities. How did all this happen? Simple, people decide quickly who is a part of their “in” group and they perpetuate the interests of that group. By this they strive to concentrate power and resources at accelerating rates as the “in” crowd, or those that can be trusted, shrinks by every applicable filter possible.

When we see this at scale the injustice is unquestionable. Men favour men and thus women earn less for the same work. Ethnic groups get marginalized. Socioeconomic imbalances grow.

Here’s a super short example and flash lesson in a practice called “Redlining”.

In 1934, the Federal Housing Administration of the U.S. set out to “assess” the health, and therefore value, of neighborhoods across urban areas of the U.S. In a similar way to how a census works, FHA representatives surveyed 239 cities to create “residential security maps” to gauge the risk of real-estate investment. Those deemed most desirable for lending purposes were given an “A” rating and outlined in green. Type “B” were outlined in blue, still desirable. “Declining” neighborhoods were labelled type “C” and outlined in yellow. The most risky neighbourhoods were outlined red and labelled type “D”.

Just take a facking wild guess what the almost singular metric used to categorize these neighborhoods was… That’s right, it was race. The more brown people observed, the less “desirable” the hood. Forget that many of these areas were literally thriving with small and medium sized businesses, had stable local governance, and small but healthy houses of finance.

The result of this FEDERAL policy had a cataclysmic cascade of events:

  1. Local banks were ostracized resulting in the inability to service local industry.
  2. Small businesses were unable to access loans & credit leading to unemployment.
  3. Individuals were denied loans to purchase property in these neighborhoods leading to plummeting home values.
  4. Low value homes don’t bring in taxes to spend on public services like oh, Schools, Policemen, Firemen, basic utilities, all that ish.

Sprinkle some crack on it and voila! You have yourself a ghetto! Let this be your step by step guide. Think about this the next time you hear someone describe something as “ghetto” or “ratchet.” (read more here)

We could play this same game with Homosexuality. There are people who legitimately blame global climate disasters, not on the devastating effects of man-made industry, but on people who find love and sexual attraction to their same sex. What.the.actual.f@ck?

Look, this article isn’t meant to elucidate on institutional racism and discrimination except to point out that the vestiges of these practices have had a tidal wave effect on the perception of minorities (race, sex, orientation included).

What I’m trying to draw attention to is that we plainly see some frightening examples present themselves in seemingly benign ways that serve to reinforce our prejudices.

Why did this happen? Because “they” are not “us”, and therefore should be feared and denied access to “our” resources. Based on nothing but an observable difference.

I know someone is reading this and thinking, “that is so far out of proportion to this blog about bias.” You’re an ass. This happened. In real life. The echoes of which still reverberate in every corner of our oh-so-modern and liberal society.

Brown people are prejudged everyday as dangerous criminals and punished more severely than their white counterparts by magnitudes. I mean, when’s the last time a police officer shot and killed a 12-year-old white kid? Uh, you can’t think of a time. Period.

In short, women, people of color, and all the letters of the LGBT community have been tarred with some awful stereotype that follows them like a shadow wherever they go. Where this becomes super dangerous is when that shadow becomes an unwelcomed guest and a distraction during a moment when that individual needs most to be assessed by the nature or their character and merit.

Removing Bias

Honestly, we don’t have a mainstream solution yet. I love the idea of blind assessments. I’m going to draw on the example in my previous article where an orchestra auditioned musicians from behind a screen resulting in an almost equal number of female musicians being selected in what has historically been a male dominated field. I love that.

Can we find a similar way to interview people for jobs? I don’t see why not. We can test their intellect, values, motivations, and behaviors through a series of virtual assessments. We could have them create writing samples, dictate a presentation, give an elevator pitch, whatever you can imagine, all from behind a virtual “screen”. All before we know their last name is Smith or Mohamed. See what happened there? You did it again.