How unconscious bias affects my life as a student

What is bias?

Our brain receives approximately 11 million pieces of information per second. Amazing, right? If only it had the processing power necessary to process all of them though - it can only properly analyze 40. This means that at any given second of any given day you have to constantly decide what to pay attention to and what to ignore. Since this process is pretty hard and complicated, our brain has developed a set of tools (heuristics) to decide things subconsciously, without having to think about them too much. Those heuristics form a basis for our so-called "intuition" or "gut feeling".

While you might think that it sounds great and that it is probably really helpful - and you wouldn't be in the wrong - there's also a downside to using those heuristics. Since they are formed by your subconscious and are more or less random or societally defined (if you didn't undergo any unbiasing procedure), you can actually worsen your decisions by relying on intuition rather than logic. For example, you can miss out on an awesome friend just because they wore a color you didn't like on that particular day or because the way they smile looks "kinda weird" to you.

Bias in my personal life

I'd say that I'm feeling the power of bias stronger than ever in Japan, a country where I, as a Ukrainian, is a part of 外国人, the "outside people". People are associating a lot of different things with me just due to how I look like and dress. Although this is commonly called "having a certain キャラ(character)" by Japanese people, I prefer to call it "putting people into boxes" . Some common examples of "boxing" include:

  • If you like fashion and jokes it means that you must be a "womanizer"
  • If you attend a technical university you must be an antisocial "nerd"
  • If you come to Japan you must like either temples, anime or want to find a partner in here

While statistically speaking those statements might as well be justified - antisocial people might gravitate to tech universities on average - I think that on a personal level judging people like that is far away from rational (that's a really scientific way of saying "stupid"), since you can never really fully "know" a person - so why do you think that you can just describe intricate details of personality with a couple of words?

Bias in University

But of course, bias doesn't just show itself in one's personal life - it is present everywhere, from lecture halls to workplaces.

For example, I had a professor in my undergraduate university in Poland that would not let me solve problems near the board, despite me really wanting to do so. I shared that concern with a friend of mine and we then tried to figure out what exactly was the reason behind this.

Maybe it was because I sat close to the board? Maybe it was because I was ready to answer those questions and he wanted to ask someone that didn't understand the material quite as well? Maybe he just disliked me?

We pondered this question with my friend for a quite a while until we found out something interesting. There was a correlation between people that were invited to solve problems near the board and their sex: they were almost always female. And while nobody knows what made him choose students for answering the problems, the fact remains - and his image in our eyes wasn't improved by it.

But of course, it's not like I'm always on the receiving end of it all. I probably am prone to thinking that women teachers are more talkative and kind than their male counterparts. This belief of mine probably came from my culture, where women have an image of being more talkative - but in reality, one's sex and talkativeness is not really correlated on a person-to-person level. (I don't know if any research has been done on the societal "big picture" one - but that belief probably came from somewhere.)

Dealing with bias

But how does one deal with bias?

While it'd be impossible to remove it totally, we can still try to reduce the impact that it makes on our decisions. Next time you almost ignore someone because of their appearance or some other small detail, just pause for a second and think twice about it - maybe that person might not be that bad after all?

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