The Myth of White Male Geek Rationality

People who consider themselves fully rational individuals are ignorant about basic psychology and their own minds.

It is easy for white men in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields to perceive themselves as more rational than other groups, because our society associates rationality with whites, men, and STEM professionals. When white men in STEM fields believe in this stereotype, they might assume that bias is more common in non-white people, women, and people in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. After all, these other groups seem to want to discuss bias more often, and unexamined associative “reasoning” would link bias to those who bring up the topic of bias. Under logical scrutiny, however, it does not follow that the act of thinking about bias makes one more biased.

Green Red Blue
Purple Blue Purple


Blue Purple Red
Green Purple Green


the Stroop effect refers to the fact that naming the color of the first set of words is easier and quicker than the second.

A basic tenet of contemporary psychology is that mental activity can be unconscious. Unconscious simply refers to any mental activity that is “not conscious”, and it is not equivalent to the unscientific New Age concept of the Subconscious. A good example of unconscious mental activity interfering with conscious intentions is the Stroop effect (right). If you try to name the colours of the colour words aloud, the first set of colours will be easier to name than the second set of colours, because you unconsciously read the words. This means that you do not have full control over your thoughts and behaviour, and your willpower or logical reasoning cannot overcome the unconscious cultural bias of being able to read in English. Of course, there are other unconscious cultural biases aside from English literacy bias.

Read the rest of this entry »

Scientists are prone to unconscious sexism proved by science.

In How the sex bias prevails (The Age), Shankar Vedantam describes a randomized, controlled psychology experiment that proves the existence of unconscious sexism in the laboratory:

Madeline Heilman at New York University once conducted an experiment in which she told volunteers about a manager. Some were told, “Subordinates have often described Andrea as someone who is tough yet outgoing and personable. She is known to reward individual contributions and has worked hard to maximise employees’ creativity.”

Other volunteers were told, “Subordinates have often described James as someone who is tough yet outgoing and personable. He is known to reward individual contributions and has worked hard to maximise employees’ creativity.”

The only difference between what the groups were told was that some people thought they were hearing about a leader named Andrea while others thought they were hearing about a leader named James. Heilman asked her volunteers to estimate how likeable Andrea and James were as people. Three-quarters thought James was more likeable than Andrea.

Read the rest of this entry »

People perceive upper-middle class white men to be smarter than they are.

In On Being Good at Seeming Smart, Eric Schwitzgebel writes (bold emphasis mine):

[A]fter a colloquium at which the student had asked a question, one faculty member expressed to me how impressive the student was. I was struck by that remark because I had thought the student’s question had actually been pretty poor. But it occurred to me that the question had seemed, superficially, to be smart. That is, if you didn’t think too much about the content but rather just about the tone and delivery, you probably would get a strong impression of smartness. In fact, my overall view of this student was that he was about average — neither particularly good nor particularly bad — but that he was a master of seeming smart: He had the confidence, the delivery, the style, all the paraphernalia of smartness, without an especially large dose of the actual thing.

Since then, I have been collecting anecdotal data on seeming smart. One thing I’ve noticed is what sort of person tends spontaneously to be described, in my presence, as “seeming smart”. A very striking pattern emerges: In every case I have noted the smart-seeming person has been a young white male. Now my sample size is small and philosophy is about 75% white male anyway, so I want to be cautious in this inference. […]

Read the rest of this entry »

Masking the gender and race of job applicants increases diversity in hiring.

Eric Ries writes about his experience in achieving diversity in hiring by masking identifying information from the résumés (emphasis mine):

Now, whenever I screen resumes, I ask the recruiter to black out any demographic information from the resume itself: name, age, gender, country of origin. The first time I did this experiment, I felt a strange feeling of vertigo while reading the resume. “Who is this guy?” I had a hard time forming a visual image, which made it harder to try and compare each candidate to the successful people I’d worked with in the past. It was an uncomfortable feeling, which instantly revealed just how much I’d been relying on surface qualities when screening resumes before – even when I thought I was being 100% meritocratic. And, much to my surprise (and embarrassment), the kinds of people I started phone-screening changed immediately.

And yet, when I suggest this practice to hiring managers and recruiters alike, they rarely do it. Hiring managers say, “the recruiter would never go for it” while recruiters say, “the hiring manager won’t accept it.” What I think we’re really saying is: “I don’t want to know if I am biased.” That’s understandable – it’s embarrassing! Even if our biases are only implicit and not consciously held, the systems we build can still contain bias. When we change a hiring policy, especially if we do it in a visible way, we reap two benefits. We actually improve our hiring process and also signal our commitment to meritocracy.

Read the rest of this entry »

Dear IT industry: “Meritocracy” does not mean what you think it means.

IT culture is so ignorant about how society works that what would be satire in other contexts is actually how most IT people think. IT people in general are not exactly experts on how people and society work, yet too many individuals in IT like to make bold, confident, and unsupported claims about meritocracy.

Vivek Wadhwa of TechCrunch writes:

Is the Valley deliberately keeping these groups out? I don’t think so. Silicon Valley is, without doubt, a meritocracy. In this land, only the fittest survive. That is exactly the way it should be. For the Valley’s innovation system to achieve peak performance, new technologies need to constantly obsolete the old, and the world’s best techies need to keep making the Valley’s top guns compete for their jobs. There is no room for government mandated affirmative action, and our tech companies shouldn’t have to apologize for hiring the people they need. But at the same time, without realizing it, the Valley may be excluding a significant part of the American population that could be making it even more competitive. False stereotypes may be getting in the way of greater innovation and prosperity.

“Meritocracy” means “a society or social system in which people get status or rewards because of what they achieve”. If some people get status and rewards partly because they are white and male, then the system is not a meritocracy. Such a system would have a racial and gender bias, just like every other industry.

Read the rest of this entry »

“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.”

Read the rest of this entry »