“I only read Playboy for the articles.” – a study on unconscious bias

The conceit of deceit (The Economist):

YOU are deciding between two magazines to read. The one you choose just happens to feature photos of women in very small swimsuits. But you do not, you claim, pick that particular magazine for the bathing beauties; it happens to have more interesting articles, or better coverage of copper mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. You will say this even in the midst of a lab experiment that has been set up so that the only possible difference between the two magazines is the presence (or absence) of swimsuits.

Such was the finding of Zoë Chance, a doctoral student, and Michael Norton, a marketing professor, both at Harvard Business School. The pair were investigating how people justify “questionable” behaviour (Mr Norton’s word) to themselves after the fact. They asked 23 male students to choose between two sports magazines, one with broader coverage and one with more feature articles. The magazine which also happened to contain a special swimsuit issue was picked three-quarters of the time, regardless of the other content. But asked why they chose that particular magazine, the subjects pointed to either the sports coverage or the greater number of features—whichever happened to accompany the bikinis.

This may not seem surprising: the joke about reading Playboy for the articles is so old Ms Chance and Mr Norton borrowed it for the title of their working paper. But it is the latest in a series of experiments exploring how people behave in ways they think might be frowned upon, and then explain how their motives are actually squeaky clean. Managers, for example, have been found to favour male applicants at hypothetical job interviews by claiming that they were searching for a candidate with either greater education or greater experience, depending on the attribute with which the man could trump the woman. In another experiment, people chose to watch a movie in a room already occupied by a person in a wheelchair when an adjoining room was showing the same film, but decamped when the movie in the next room was different (thus being able to claim that they were not avoiding the disabled person but just choosing a different film to watch). As Ms Chance puts it: “People will do what they want to do, and then find reasons to support it.”

[…]

Via MindHacks:

I recommend reading the original study. It’s very accessibly written, and if you read nothing else, skip to page 9 (page 10 of the pdf file) and read the section entitled ‘Are People Aware That They are Justifying?’.

One of the key insights from psychology and one of the most practically applicable findings (particularly in clinical work) is that people’s explanations for why they do something are not necessarily a reliable guide to what influences their behaviour.

This also goes for ourselves and there are probably many areas in our life where we justify our actions, good or bad, with comfortable, plausible, fantasies.


Links:

15 Responses to ““I only read Playboy for the articles.” – a study on unconscious bias”

  1. Hardlearn Says:

    Hi Restructure!, it’s been a while. I hope all is well.

    “This also goes for ourselves and there are probably many areas in our life where we justify our actions, good or bad, with comfortable, plausible, fantasies.”

    Why do you write on this site?

  2. Restructure! Says:

    Hi HardLearn! It’s good to see you here again.

    Just to clarify, that quote is from MindHacks, but I suppose whatever answer I give will be some kind of rationalization or justification. I believe I have multiple reasons, which I can’t remember all at once, but one reason is to spread ideas across domains of knowledge that normally don’t intersect.

  3. Jack Stephens Says:

    I know I’ll sound like Spock for saying this, but, “Fascinating, truly fascinating. All be it, unsurprising.”

    As for whether people are aware of what they justify I tend to take the more phenomenological views of Beauvoir and Sartre in that consciousness, fully translucent, is fully aware of itself and has no subconscious.

  4. Hardlearn Says:

    Now we can ask why is it you want to spread ideas across domains of knowledge that normally don’t intersect?
    But as you already said, that would probably be some kind of rationalization or justification. Now, that’s you, a really thoughtful person who, at least in respect to the topics you write about, examines everything said and how it’s said. If we kept on going on that way, would we ever find an answer that isn’t a rationalization or justification? One where we just know without the association of thought..without the association of thought because thought is probably always biased.

    I’m asking to clarify if we could draw a distinction from a reply like yours and the reply of the manager with a male-hiring bias.

    Also, Could we not use the word rationalization? It usually seems to be implied with that word only a superficial answer likely to be false if examined further. Could we use the word logic instead? Logic doesn’t have the same negative baggage as rationalization does but seems, in a way, to be the same word, IMO.

  5. Restructure! Says:

    Hardlearn,

    One way of not being the manager with the male-hiring bias is to formalize beforehand what you are searching for in the candidate, even before anyone applies. Job resume names and addresses should be not be viewable to the decision-maker, and whether you are searching for education or experience should be determined from the resumes. The interview stage is always going to be messy, but there should be affirmative action, in that when two people are equally qualified, the person from the discriminated group should be chosen to compensate for the very likely possibility that you may be unconsciously biased against her.

    This is why in university, some essay grading schemes have checklists to ensure that everyone is graded on the same criteria. They don’t usually remove the names, though.

    I don’t believe I can be distinguished from the the manager with the male bias when answering why I write. I suppose it could be answered if someone did an experiment on me in which they gave me some stimulus and changed certain variables to see the change in my behaviour.

  6. Hardlearn Says:

    There is this movie/documentary called “Food, Inc” that had this little segment in it talking about how cows are supposed to eat grass but instead are fed corn because it was cheaper which in turn made e.coli outbreaks more likely. It showed how they came up with a bunch of high tech solutions to prevent e.coli from spreading. It eventually got to the point where they were washing the meat in some chemical baths. I can’t remember what it was, but i think it is something you use to wash your bathroom floors! A whole pyramid of high tech prevention schemes when the simplest thing to do would have been to put cows back on grass(that’s what the writer claimed, anyway).

    I feel the same way about there being no distinction between the 2 responses, too.
    Did you post this article as evidence for affirmative action policies?
    One thing I’ve never been sure about is the soundness of these experiments to find “inner” processes. If you could clarify, that’d be cool.
    For some1 to run an experiment on you to find out your “true” motive, isn’t there already implicit in that, a bias on the experimenter? The experimenter already has an idea of what they want to find. They then devise an experiment to bring it out. Any result is interpreted through the reasoning behind doing the experiment in the first place, isn’t it? Wouldn’t they interpret your responses to each stimuli either through their biases or the bias of Freud or somebody like that? Peers may review the work, but they are likely biased and the checklist from which they work from may also be biased.
    It’s one thing to experiment on physical objects, but it seems psychological studies are kind of suspect, IMO.
    Do these types of studies ever do anything more than create guidelines/ bolster viewpoints from which people try to act according to? If not, beyond the ideologies, do they have any importance at all?

    ex. Some1 reads this study goes to a book store and sees some guy reading a magazine with half naked ladies on it. Asks the guy why he reads it, etc. Person tells guy of the study and the guy likely does what? Goes on with what he’s doing or through some form of logic says ‘wow, your right. That’s so degrading. I’ll stop.’ Now he’s “conscious” of a particular bias that he’s been told about. Does his interest in those magazines stop, or does he force himself into ‘new’ standards of conduct? Is that the only way to act?
    There seems to be no difference between this and religion except that some smart people in a lab determined one and not the other, right?

  7. Restructure! Says:

    Hardlearn,

    Did you post this article as evidence for affirmative action policies?

    I would say no, although my support for affirmative action in employment is based on my belief that it compensates for unconscious bias.

    One thing I’ve never been sure about is the soundness of these experiments to find “inner” processes. If you could clarify, that’d be cool.

    I’m not sure if I understand your question. Do you mean that you accept the soundness of these experiments to find “outer” processes (whatever that means)?

    For some1 to run an experiment on you to find out your “true” motive, isn’t there already implicit in that, a bias on the experimenter? The experimenter already has an idea of what they want to find. They then devise an experiment to bring it out. Any result is interpreted through the reasoning behind doing the experiment in the first place, isn’t it?

    Ideally, experimenters should state their hypothesis first and specify beforehand what would confirm or deny their hypothesis before they run the experiment. Otherwise, they would rework their hypothesis to fit the results of their experiment. Some experimenters don’t do it in the ideal way, but it’s because they are deviating from the proper protocol, not because the idea of experimentation is flawed.

    Outside the laboratory, casual experimentation still provides some useful information. For example, once I was shopping with my friend for a backpack, and I believed that the backpacks made specifically for women’s body types were more comfortable. My friend wanted to test this, and made me wear the backpacks without me knowing which one I was wearing. I turned out that I couldn’t tell the difference. Thus, the women’s backpack was not more comfortable, but I believed it was only because I expected it to be.

    Wouldn’t they interpret your responses to each stimuli either through their biases or the bias of Freud or somebody like that?

    Experimental psychologists today do not believe in any of Freud’s theories. The only useful thing he contributed is the idea of the subconscious, which is now understood as unconscious processes instead of some kind of cohesive “subconscious mind”.

    Peers may review the work, but they are likely biased and the checklist from which they work from may also be biased.

    Yes, there is also publication bias, and even scientists are subject to cognitive biases.

    But the best way to understand scientific knowledge is not as some kind of positive body of knowledge. Experiments show what things are false, not what things are true. It’s really more about debunking assumptions.

    It’s one thing to experiment on physical objects, but it seems psychological studies are kind of suspect, IMO.
    Do these types of studies ever do anything more than create guidelines/ bolster viewpoints from which people try to act according to? If not, beyond the ideologies, do they have any importance at all?

    Actually, psychology studies are not conducted to create guidelines for behaviour; scientific findings are not public service announcements.

    The point of psychology is to understand the human mind. Human beings are part of nature, and we are animals made up of cells. Understanding how the mind works is an extension of understanding biology, understanding the natural world.

    ex. Some1 reads this study goes to a book store and sees some guy reading a magazine with half naked ladies on it. Asks the guy why he reads it, etc. Person tells guy of the study and the guy likely does what? Goes on with what he’s doing or through some form of logic says ‘wow, your right. That’s so degrading. I’ll stop.’ Now he’s “conscious” of a particular bias that he’s been told about. Does his interest in those magazines stop, or does he force himself into ‘new’ standards of conduct? Is that the only way to act?

    Probably his interest won’t stop, because human beings usually can’t override their habits by merely being aware of them, e.g., most smokers who try and fail at quitting are usually aware that smoking is bad; it’s not a matter of ignorance.

    Personally, if I was a heterosexual man and had I believed that I read Playboy for the articles, after reading about this study, I would man up to the fact that I was reading Playboy for the half-naked ladies. I would then read up about the psychology of sexuality, and literature on the ethics of sex, sexual attraction, etc. I would feel guilty and possibly upset that I was like a stereotype, but I would deal with this discomfort by obsessively seeking more information.

    As a heterosexual woman, however, I find the article hilarious, because “I only read it for the articles” (or something very similar) was the excuse my friend’s ex-boyfriend gave. He actually believed it, and he had a male friend next to him who agreed that it was perfectly reasonable to read the magazine for the articles. It was like they both confirmed their biases and self-delusions with each other, while to the rest of us—us women—their real motivations were completely transparent.

    Yeah, maybe the primary motivation for posting this is “LOL”, but I also want people to get used to the idea of unconscious bias, and why intentions don’t really matter.

    There seems to be no difference between this and religion except that some smart people in a lab determined one and not the other, right?

    I don’t believe something because a scientist says so, but I understand the logic of how science is conducted, which is why I believe most of the conclusions. As an analogy, I don’t believe that 100 * 100 = 10000 because the mathematician or math teacher says so, but because I understand how multiplication works, which is why my answer aligns with the answer of the math teacher.

  8. Hardlearn Says:

    “I’m not sure if I understand your question. Do you mean that you accept the soundness of these experiments to find “outer” processes (whatever that means)?”
    Like the action of a bouncing ball would be a physical(outer) action.
    Psychological processes like biases or “subconscious” actions, I’m a bit uncomfortable with. I’ll have to come back and clarify that when/if I’m able to have a more coherent grip on what I want to say.

    “Actually, psychology studies are not conducted to create guidelines for behaviour; scientific findings are not public service announcements.

    The point of psychology is to understand the human mind. Human beings are part of nature, and we are animals made up of cells. Understanding how the mind works is an extension of understanding biology, understanding the natural world”
    Just read your post about the public service announcements. That made things a little more clear for me. No more questions. Thanks for the link. I gotta do some catch up in the archives.
    Laterz

  9. sciencegirl Says:

    Would you actually expect people’s explanations for their behavior to be honest? If the men had said, well, I liked the articles in both, but also wanted to flip thru the bikini section, you would call him an a-hole.
    If you want people to be honest, you can’t be mad at them about it. But that will never happen, so people conceal their true feelings under socially acceptable half-truths.

  10. Restructure! Says:

    I think most of the subjects actually believed what they said, because of my experience with heterosexual men’s rationalizations to themselves when it comes to sex. Often people conceal their socially-inappropriate true feelings even from themselves.

  11. 1stddevHuman Says:

    The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue will be ready soon if it already hasn’t. Are posters equating supermodels in bikinis with sadistic, domination porn?

    I’m new to this post, so I don’t know the range of thought. The zeitgeist, so to speak. (That’s a word I don’t get to say enough.)

    I guess my question is: Why would someone lie about looking at the swimsuit edition? I wouldn’t lie about.

    Let me think…if they put SI, The Sporting News, and ESPN’s magazine on a table…I’d pick up the swimsuit edition. SI and ESPN are more popular. ESPN is a larger format, has a trendier, edgier tone. Sporting News is like Jack in the Box to McDonald’s and Burger King.

    If I had enough time, I’d read them all, but since the swimsuit issue only happens once a year, that’d be my first. If I was asked, I’d say I’m curious to see who they put on the cover, who are the new models that are being introduced, which locales they used. Oh, and I’d look for the girls that weren’t super skinny. I’m a fan of curves.

    Is that something I should hide?

    I do not believe that being a fan of pretty girls means I support oppression of females. After being on this site for a few days and jumping to some of the links, I’m sure there are folks who believe some crazy notions with fundamentalist fervor.

    Like purity towards an ethereal position is the greatest virtue?? Good grief. Zealots…fucking zealots. (sigh)

    Maybe I’ll look for that later, but I’d prefer to stay in a good mood. The swimsuit issue is not gratuitous, let-me-show-you-what-my-gyno-sees, trashy, exploitive.

    **Note to those who don’t know the difference: get the swimsuit issue and then go to a convenience store and ask the clerk for the ones behind the counter.**

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  14. links for 2010-09-07 « Embololalia Says:

    […] “I only read Playboy for the articles.” – a study on unconscious bias « Restructure! it is the latest in a series of experiments exploring how people behave in ways they think might be frowned upon, and then explain how their motives are actually squeaky clean. Managers, for example, have been found to favour male applicants at hypothetical job interviews by claiming that they were searching for a candidate with either greater education or greater experience, depending on the attribute with which the man could trump the woman. In another experiment, people chose to watch a movie in a room already occupied by a person in a wheelchair when an adjoining room was showing the same film, but decamped when the movie in the next room was different (thus being able to claim that they were not avoiding the disabled person but just choosing a different film to watch). As Ms Chance puts it: “People will do what they want to do, and then find reasons to support it.” (tags: psychology cognitive.biases privilege) […]

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    […] going to cite the well-known ‘Playboy Defence’ here: I didn’t rate this for the pictures, it’s all about the content. […]


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