Jul 15

Dark side of intuition — unconscious bias

The occasion is tragic, but I am happy to see some more public discussion of ‘unconscious bias’ in the context of recent events related to the police shootings of minority ‘suspects.’  I particularly like the title of this piece:

“A former officer explains why racist police violence occurs even when cops ‘aren’t racist’”


I think that is the right framing.  Telling people they are influenced by unconscious bias is important.  Telling people that makes them racist (or sexist, or perpetrating any other prejudice) does not seem to be helpful.

When I describe this to people interested in intuition, I like to make the connection between implicit learning and habits.  Your brain learns bad habits as easily as good habits.  So the neural processes that support skill learning and useful intuition can also easily pick up bias from the statistical structure of the environment and mislead your instincts and gut reactions.

I’d like to think our recent interest in research about the ‘meta-cognition’ of implicit knowledge will eventually be relevant here.  We have been exploring ideas for how to learn to be more sensitive to and to evaluate our intuitions (e.g., to detect when they are accurate and should drive decision making).  In theory, that line of research should eventually extend to how to detect when your bias is pushing you in the wrong direction as well.

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