Wednesday, May 27, 2009

How Unbiased are our Judgements?

Originally Posted on the Common Threads Blog,
Centre Daily Times, Feb 27, 2008

The first two months of 2008 have brought us reports about the divisive riots in Kenya, the sectarian rivalries in Iraq, the tensions in Serbia and Kosovo, and the divisiveness of our own election primaries.

As a writer who focuses on the common threads that link us all, it has been depressing to try and figure out why the links between people break down, and why nations fracture along religious, ethnic and tribal lines, and even along gender, age, race, and class lines.

How do we lose the common bonds we share as human beings? When do certain aspects of our identity, be it religion, gender, ethnicity, political ideology become more important than our common humanity? When do our differences begin to matter more than our commonalities?

I don’t know the answers, but know that we lose a lot when we begin to divide up into groups.

I have often seen little kids, separating out into groups of “boys” and “girls” at elementary school. And now, a friend who lives in a major metropolitan area tells me that in the very diverse elementary school her child attends, there are many kids from different racial and ethnic groups, and kids in elementary school play at recess in groups formed along racial and ethnic lines.

Are these groups inevitable, I wonder?

I turn to Blink, the wonderful book by Malcolm Gladwell, in an attempt to understand how we are arriving at these groups - how do we judge who to hang out with? Is it similar to how we judge on who to vote for? Who to hire for a job?

Gladwell uses scientific research to demonstrate how we make “judgments” in the first two seconds of any interaction, via an “unconscious” mechanism. Many a time, these snap judgments, which we may call our instinctive reactions, may be right on the dot.

But they are not always infallible. Many of our prejudices and dislikes towards others can stem from these snap judgments. So that we can pronounce that someone looks a leader, or that someone looks like a terrorist, just on the basis of a snap judgment.

In the last chapter of his book, Gladwell writes about how the number of women in orchestras in the US went up by five times, once the rules for auditions were changed three decades ago, to have musicians auditioning from behind a screen. Once the screen hid the gender of the musician from the selection committee, more women were hired, thus proving the previous existence of bias on the basis of gender.

Perhaps a similar process to select our presidential candidates will help – analyze their records, without giving them any face time with us – in order to make sure we simply vote for the most competent person. Would such “screens” have given us presidential candidates who are more diverse – including more women and more people from all races? And filtered out irrelevant parameters like gender, race, age, religion and so forth?

The data from the classical music world showed us that women were being excluded when no screens were used. And it is not a stretch to say that this has happened, and is happening in other areas too.

After all, women were the last group to get the right to vote, are playing catch up in getting to positions of power, including the presidency, and are judged differently by our society, which includes the media.

I wish there was a way to use such “screens” in the world of politics, like in the world of classical music auditions - "screens" which would help us judge, based only on the records of the candidates, and not based on any other irrelevant factors which can cloud our perceptions.

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