Biases that Bind
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Leadership Dec 1, 2009

Bias­es that Bind

The Role of Stereo­types in Deci­sion-Mak­ing Processes

Based on the research of

Galen Bodenhausen

In many sit­u­a­tions, stereo­types do more harm than good. But sit­u­a­tions exist in which stereo­types can be a use­ful tool for effi­cient deci­sion mak­ing. In med­ical deci­sion mak­ing, for exam­ple, demo­graph­ic cat­e­gories often are unde­ni­ably rel­e­vant: a physi­cian would be unlike­ly to diag­nose a male patient with menopause.

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Nev­er­the­less, it is impor­tant to under­stand the poten­tial pit­falls of stereo­typ­ing. Galen Boden­hausen (Pro­fes­sor of Mar­ket­ing at the Kel­logg School of Man­age­ment) points out that peo­ple tend to over­es­ti­mate the accu­ra­cy of stereo­types. Many cog­ni­tive mech­a­nisms lead to false con­fir­ma­tion of stereo­types and can ulti­mate­ly lead to erro­neous deci­sion making.

Con­sid­er the com­mon stereo­type some male dri­vers hold regard­ing female dri­vers. A male dri­ver might claim female dri­vers are infe­ri­or, often jus­ti­fy­ing that claim by cit­ing exam­ples from per­son­al expe­ri­ence: Well, in fact, just today I was dri­ving to work and was cut off, and sure enough, there was a woman dri­ving the car.” The prob­lem with such log­ic is that peo­ple tend to more read­i­ly recall exam­ples that tend to affirm — rather than dis­prove — their stereo­typ­ic beliefs. The above male dri­ver may have been cut off in traf­fic by oth­er men just as often as by women, but he sim­ply does not recall those instances. In his mind, the neg­a­tive expe­ri­ences he has had with female dri­vers far out­num­ber those he has had with male dri­vers. Clear­ly, to con­firm such a stereo­type would require a con­sis­tent tal­ly of bad expe­ri­ences for both male and female drivers.

The above exam­ple is just one of a num­ber of bias­es that can dis­tort mem­o­ry in a way that false­ly con­firms stereo­types. Even in cas­es where stereo­types are par­tial­ly accu­rate, the mag­ni­tude of the rela­tion­ships between cat­e­go­ry mem­ber­ship and indi­vid­ual traits can be obscured. In any case, it is clear that a num­ber of cog­ni­tive process­es can pro­duce illu­so­ry rela­tion­ships between group mem­ber­ship and indi­vid­ual traits.

Stereo­typ­ic Bias­es Dis­tort Information

Admit­ted­ly, some stereo­types can con­tain accu­rate infor­ma­tion. Boden­hausen points out, how­ev­er, that these stereo­types should not be used instead of — nor should they dis­tort the way we use — case-spe­cif­ic infor­ma­tion. Yet Bodenhausen’s research shows that peo­ple either neglect case infor­ma­tion or sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly dis­tort it as a con­se­quence of stereo­typ­ic biases.

Peo­ple tend to more read­i­ly recall exam­ples that tend to affirm — rather than dis­prove — their stereo­typ­ic beliefs.

In one study, Boden­hausen pre­sent­ed sub­jects with tran­scripts from crim­i­nal tri­als. The tran­scripts con­tained lit­tle infor­ma­tion about the defen­dant but much infor­ma­tion about the case evi­dence. In each tran­script, the evi­dence pre­sent­ed was held con­stant but the name of the defen­dant — designed to reveal the eth­nic­i­ty — var­ied. Results showed that if the mock jurors learned the eth­nic­i­ty of the defen­dant after see­ing the case evi­dence, they were not influ­enced by that fac­tor. But if they learned the defendant’s eth­nic­i­ty before see­ing the case evi­dence, stereo­typ­ic bias­es were evi­dent. In this exper­i­ment, Lati­no defen­dants were found guilty 60 per­cent of the time, where­as their Anglo coun­ter­parts were found guilty only 48 per­cent of the time.

Weigh­ing the Evidence

In anoth­er study, Boden­hausen found that stereo­types can affect how deci­sion mak­ers con­sid­er dif­fer­ent types of evi­dence. In a parole deci­sion-mak­ing expe­ri­ence, sub­jects were pre­sent­ed with infor­ma­tion about dif­fer­ent pris­on­ers. The facts about the pris­on­ers’ crimes were fixed, but their names were changed to vary their appar­ent eth­nic­i­ty. More­over, Boden­hausen manip­u­lat­ed the motives for the crimes. For exam­ple, if a pris­on­er had been incar­cer­at­ed for rob­bing a con­ve­nience store, a sit­u­a­tion­al expla­na­tion might be that he did so because he did not have mon­ey to pur­chase med­i­cine for his preg­nant and ill wife. Such infor­ma­tion might reflect the like­li­hood of reha­bil­i­ta­tion for the pris­on­er and pos­si­bly influ­ence parole decisions.

Acti­vat­ing an eth­nic stereo­type sig­nif­i­cant­ly influ­enced parole deci­sions in the exper­i­ment. Parole deci­sions for non-descript pris­on­ers were influ­enced by the expla­na­tion of the motive. In con­trast, the very same expla­na­tion did not influ­ence parole deci­sions for Lati­no pris­on­ers. When the sub­jects were asked to recall details of a case, the sub­jects’ rec­ol­lec­tion of the motive was also influ­enced by their stereo­types of the prisoner’s eth­nic­i­ty. Results from the exper­i­ment show that stereo­types can affect both the judg­ment and mem­o­ry of deci­sion mak­ers (Fig­ure 1).

Figure 1 Effects of stereotypes on ratings of deservingness of parole (top panel) and proportion of participants who recalled situational explanations for the prisoner’s behavior (bottom panel)

A num­ber of fac­tors can influ­ence the impact of stereo­types. Research has shown that deci­sion com­plex­i­ty and indi­vid­ual mood states both can affect the like­li­hood of bias. Also, Bodenhausen’s research shows that an individual’s ener­gy lev­el dur­ing dif­fer­ent parts of the day can affect the like­li­hood of stereo­typ­ing. For exam­ple, ear­ly birds” are less biased in the morn­ing and night owls” are less biased in the evening. In short, a vari­ety of fac­tors that influ­ence the effi­cien­cy of infor­ma­tion pro­cess­ing can mod­er­ate the extent of stereo­typ­ic bias­es in deci­sion making.

How can we avoid stereo­typ­ic bias­es? The chal­lenge stems from the implic­it nature of the bias­es; deci­sion mak­ers often are not con­scious of their bias­es. The first step in com­bat­ing stereo­types requires an aware­ness of the dan­gers they pose for deci­sion mak­ing. The moti­va­tion and oppor­tu­ni­ty to con­sid­er mem­bers of stereo­typed groups and the desire for accu­ra­cy can allow deci­sion mak­ers to go beyond sim­plis­tic stereo­typ­ic biases.

Featured Faculty

Galen Bodenhausen

Kellogg Professor of Marketing; Lawyer Taylor Professor of Psychology and Marketing, Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences

About the Writer

Glenn Chiu, Kellogg MBA Class of 2009

About the Research

Galen V. Bodenhausen (2005). The role of stereotypes in decision-making processes. Medical Decision Making, 25 (1), 112-118.

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