Bigoted? No, just overconfident and bad at statistics

There are different shades of discrimination. There is active dislike of a particular group of people, and then there is the tendency to make generalisations about individuals based on the (perceived) characteristics of the group you associate them with e.g. of the “you’re a woman and therefore probably a bad driver” type. Both, of course can be damaging and impede different individuals’ ability to achieve their full potential in society. The former is especially frowned upon and is pretty much socially unacceptable. In principle, the latter is becoming so too – but can we stop ourselves making generalisations that influence our decision-making?

Examples of figures from mental rotation tests.

Image via Wikipedia

A recent study by behavioural economics academics Konstanze Albrecht, Emma von Essen, Juliane Parys and Nora Szech suggests an interesting division between the behaviour of men and women assessing the likely performance of individuals in tasks that men are traditionally good at – in this particular study, mental rotation tasks. They find that women tend to be over-influenced by the average performance of a group of people rather than the specific attributes of an individual. So, for example, women assessing other women for a role that men tend to perform better at focus too much on the average performance of most women, rather than the actual performance of the woman they are assessing. But this effect is not specifically about gender discrimination in favour of men. The study shows that even in an entirely neutral context, where you have two groups of people, divided on some other arbitrary lines, women will tend to be over-influenced by average performance when assessing an individual: even if it is entirely clear how good the individual is, so that any information about the group they belong to is entirely irrelevant.
For men, the tendency to take into account irrelevant information about group performance is there, although it is stronger when groups are divided along gender lines. Interestingly, the most self-confident men tend to overvalue male performers specifically – perhaps because they tend to project their own self-confidence onto other men.
Conclusion: If you’re a woman applying for a job in a male dominated sector, you want to be interviewed by a man with low confidence.

The paper, Updating, Self-Confidence and Discrimination is here.

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