Cognitive biases | These biases that make us racist and sexist

Unfair, me? Few people will answer yes to this question. However, we unconsciously tend to favor those who are similar to us. And to perceive the rest of humanity in a less forgiving way. This is the third part of our series on bias.

The pro-group bias

Its manifestation

Believe it or not, if researchers asked you to complete a task as a team with complete strangers, you would likely continue to favor your teammates after the activity was completed. “We generally have a preference for members of our own group, without even realizing it,” explains Émilie Gagnon-St-Pierre, co-founder of the guide on cognitive biases Shortcuts and doctoral student in cognitive and social psychology at the University of Quebec in Montreal. A study showed that this favoritism appears even before entering school. We also have a propensity to consider that our community (referred to as an “ingroup” in research) is superior, even when the reality is quite different.

His reason of being

Throughout evolution, humans have had to create alliances to increase their chances of survival. However, the feeling of belonging strengthens the cohesion of a group and promotes the loyalty of its members. According to Shortcutsbiases also restrict the range of possible choices – and therefore, the cognitive effort required – when we determine how to distribute our resources (time, money, etc.).

Its repercussions

In many social situations, displaying this bias is unfair and even illegal, since it disadvantages minorities or people outside a community. Laws prohibit, among other things, nepotism. Viewing our group with rose-colored glasses – for example, by refusing to believe that it promotes racism – can further prevent us from solving problems. And all of this “can lead to conflicts with other groups,” warns Émilie Gagnon-St-Pierre, whose research focuses on relations between groups.

A Quebec example

After the close murders of a white teenager and a black teenager – Thomas Trudel and Jannai Dopwell-Bailey – in Montreal in 2021, Prime Minister François Legault and Mayor Valérie Plante publicly paid tribute to the first, but not to the second. It sent the message that a white child’s life is more valued than a black child’s, many race relations experts said. According to what they told CBC, although both politicians denied it, they may also have been influenced by “harsh stereotypes about deviance and delinquency, associating black children with criminality and to gangs” (which would then be the mark of the two other biases presented below).

His antidote

Recognizing our fondness for those in our circle can help us combat favoritism. But since bias is often unconscious, measures – such as the anonymous evaluation of candidates for certain positions – are used to prevent our brain from playing tricks on us.

The biases of essentialism and the homogeneity of other groups

Their manifestation

Lots of jokes – about women, accountants, etc. – betray a reductive vision of certain groups. This simplistic perception also infiltrates advertising… Two very common biases explain it. First of all, we tend to underestimate the disparity of individuals from other communities (called “exogroups” in research) and to imagine them “all the same”. We also too often believe that social groups differ from each other in essential and immutable ways. This presupposition would be more widespread among authoritarian personalities, who see the world in a rigid and hierarchical way, specifies Émile Gagnon-St-Pierre.

Their reason for being

Assuming that we can predict the characteristics of members of other communities protects us against mental fatigue, by relieving us of having to process an onslaught of complex information about each individual. This allows us to devote more cognitive energy to interactions with our home group. And partly explains why distinguishing the faces of people of different origins appears more difficult. Stereotypes and prejudices can also act as a social glue, because they unfortunately seem to bring those who share them together.

Their repercussions

Stereotypes reduce empathy, says guide Shortcuts. Observing a needle prick a person’s hand causes a weaker physiological response when that hand is a different color than ours. Essentialism also leads to racism, sexism, ageism, etc. Many people are thus refused access to employment or housing for discriminatory reasons. And the courts are populated with suspects who have been profiled, with prejudices that their origins make them inherently delinquent. Stereotypes also make people accept inequalities. They can even lead to “excusing sexual crimes” or “justifying genocides”, warns Shortcuts.

A Canadian example

In 2019, the Supreme Court had to order a new trial in Alberta because the murder victim – Cindy Gladue – who died of blood loss – had been repeatedly described as the “native girl” by the witnesses and lawyers from both sides. Her attacker’s defense was based on multiple prejudices against First Nations and sex workers, suggesting that she had consented to the abuse. The judge had nevertheless failed to indicate to the jurors that the origins and livelihood of this woman were not relevant and should not influence the verdict.

Their antidotes

Prejudice can “lead to a diminished interest in interacting or creating friendships within groups different from our own,” but we must combat this reflex, the guide says Shortcuts. Because the less frequent interpersonal exchanges with members of other communities, the more prejudices manifest themselves. The guide therefore suggests diversifying our network and better informing ourselves to reduce these biases.

To read tomorrow

“These biases that contaminate artificial intelligence”

Consult the practical guide to cognitive biases Shortcuts

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