COGNITIVE BIAS

We’ve got good news and bad news about cognitive bias. Let’s start with the bad news: You are probably harboring some cognitive bias right now. Let’s check: Quick! Picture a scientist.

Was he good-looking?

Well, that doesn’t actually matter. What matters is that the scientist you pictured was probably male. If we asked you whether women can be scientists, we’re sure you’d say “sure.” Of course they can. And if you were in charge of admitting students to a graduate program, or hiring a scientist, you wouldn’t want to discriminate against female applicants. No way. But when you pictured a scientist, you probably pictured a man.

Why does this matter? Because our brains are sort of lazy — or maybe we should say, “a little too eager to be efficient, sometimes.” It’s efficient for our brains to make assumptions about how things are likely to be. Like, is that large metal object hurtling toward you dangerous? Yes, it is. It’s a car, and it could kill you. It’s good if your brain already assumes that, without you having to consciously think it through.

But assumption can be another word for stereotype, and brain researchers tell us that the stereotypes stored up in our brains can affect our perceptions, our memories, and our decisions. And that can lead to bias.

A lot of bias. It seems the prevalence of cognitive bias is a big reason for the persistence of gender barriers. Which means we are all part of the problem.

So that’s the bad news. The good news is, we can do something about cognitive bias. We can’t eliminate it completely, since we can’t magically change all the cultural inputs (the books, the movies, the separate pink and blue aisles at Toys ‘R Us…) that lead our brains to store up gender stereotypes. But we can take steps to minimize its effects on what we do — we can “debias” our decisions. The first step is easy, if scary: We just have to acknowledge the reality of cognitive bias.

We’re here to help you do that. And to learn about debiasing.

Gender Justice can bring a training program in cognitive bias to your organization. Contact us to learn more about our educational services.

Remember that assumption that scientists are male? Research shows the real world impact — an example of the way cognitive bias can create gender barriers.

Feeling brave? Check to see what cognitive biases your brain might be harboring, using the Implicit Association Test developed by psychologists at Harvard, the University of Virginia and the University of Washington.