How to Reduce Biases: Slow Down

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Popular-press authors like Malcolm Gladwell have popularized the notion that we can quickly and accurately infer a great deal about someone based on very brief experiences with them. Gladwell wrote a best-selling book in 2005, Blink, about how quickly we can read people (in the blink of an eye). Gladwell wrote…

“Our powers of thin-slicing and snap judgments are extraordinary.”

“We can all mind-read effortlessly and automatically.”

Gladwell credited the social psychologist, Nalini Ambady, for the notion of “thin-slicing,” accurately drawing inferences about people from very brief exposure to them. Gladwell interviewed the facial-decoding expert, Paul Ekman, in claiming that we can read minds from brief facial expressions (or at least read the emotions behind the expressions).

Gladwell’s book contained counterexamples as well, in which snap judgments were not only wrong but also once led to the killing of an innocent man by police officers. But many readers who commented on Gladwell’s book at sites such as Amazon.com said that they became more confident in their snap judgments. Oh boy.

The accuracy rates in thin-slicing and facial-decoding research have always been far from perfect. But as long as the rates were statistically significant (i.e., above levels of chance that would reflect random guessing), many researchers have misleadingly used the term “accurate” to refer to these interpersonal judgments.

The worst example of this overstatement of accuracy came from Nicholas Rule and Nalini Ambady (2008). They conducted a study on gaydar in which participants tried to guess the sexual orientation of a male subject (gay or straight) based on viewing the subject’s face for a fraction of a second. Pictures of faces were obtained from personal ads. In the crucial condition, participants were correct 52% of the time, which was statistically significant.

coin flipping  Realize that flipping a coin would provide 50% accuracy. Correcting for random guessing, 52% drops to 4% accuracy.

Rule and Ambady concluded that “male sexual orientation is accurately perceived” and that fraction-of-a-second exposures “communicate considerable information that is rapidly and efficiently processed by the social perceiver.”

Really? Accurately perceived? Considerable information? Yes, higher than chance is pretty extraordinary when you consider that it was just a posed facial expression for a fraction of a second. Yes, 4% is not 0%. Publish that study.

But come on. Even allowing guessing (with a 50-50 chance), participants were wrong 48% of the time. Would we call air traffic controllers or radiologists “accurate” if they made mistakes 48% of the time?

Being able to correctly guess someone’s sexual orientation might be truly important if you are gay and looking for other gay people. But gaydar is not my focus.

My point is that mistakes in interpersonal perception are way more likely if you try to make these judgments very quickly, without spending the time to talk to people, without looking at the whole situation, and without even knowing why you feel the way you do (as in many blink-speed judgments).

Sometimes we might have to make judgments about others quickly. It’s closing time at the bar and someone has just asked you out. What do you do? Make your best guesses when you have to. But we should probably not feel very confident in such judgments.

Among many biases that can be reduced by slowing down is the fundamental attribution error (FAE; discussed in previous posts), in which we overestimate the role of someone’s personal characteristics or intentions when explaining their behavior. Research shows that we come to these dispositional judgments very quickly and automatically and that the harder-to-see situational factors that influence behaviors take longer to see (Gilbert & Malone, 1995).

Thus, slowing down can reduce the FAE by giving us more time to see the situational factors. Thus, slowing down can reduce the FAE-caused conflicts that can arise when that dispositional judgment is a negative one, such as calling someone lazy or aggressive or mean (Stalder, 2012).

As written in Slogan #4 of this website, there’s no statute of limitations on getting upset at someone. What’s the rush? What’s the harm in gathering a little more information? You can still decide to get upset later.

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In 2013, Malcolm Gladwell gave a revealing 60 Minutes interview looking back on Blink. Gladwell began by saying that snap judgments are sometimes good and sometimes terrible. But then he actually chose a side.

Gladwell said that a snap judgment is “probably more often terrible than it is good” and that writing Blink had taught him not to use his instincts. Whoa.

I don’t mean to pick on Gladwell. Other authors and bloggers have claimed there is great accuracy in blink-speed judgments. And Gladwell’s book made some of the relevant science accessible to so many people.

But it’s too bad that the clear-sighted personal lesson Gladwell took from writing Blink, to slow down interpersonal judgments to reduce biases, didn’t clearly make it into his book before it went to press.

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References:

60 Minutes Overtime (2013, November 24). Author Malcolm Gladwell on his best-selling books. [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/news/author-malcolm-gladwell-on-his-best-selling-books/

Gilbert, D. T., & Malone, P. S. (1995). The correspondence bias. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 21-38.

Gladwell, M. (2005). Blink: The power of thinking without thinking. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Rule, N. O., & Ambady, N. (2008). Brief exposures: Male sexual orientation is accurately perceived at 50 ms. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 1100-1105.

Stalder, D. R. (2012). A role for social psychology instruction in reducing bias and conflict. Psychology Learning and Teaching, 11, 245-255.

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