Exeter, Devon UK • May 21, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
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Beating The Bias…

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Both systemic in society and interwoven in our psyche, biases are ubiquitous. With widespread influence, from the government and media to gender and our self-esteem, bias is the inherent prejudice toward or against a person or group of people. This is not to be confused with a stereotype: a widely held view about a person or group of people that is unchanging and oversimplified. For example, the notion that ‘all those who wear glasses are smart’ is a stereotype (generalising without a factual basis) and the- now notably shifting- inclination against women going into STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) exemplifies bias. With these facts in mind, how is it that humanity is biased without even knowing it? Indeed, how can we identify and prevent unfair bias from pervading our lives and livelihoods? Why should bias bother us?

Ultimately, because it shapes the malleable brain and with it the course of sociological history. The words we use have the power to alter others’ perceptions of us, whether it be the use of slang in denoting age or demographic, or our level of vocabulary in signifying intelligence. Researchers at Stanford University in the US, are investigating language bias and its impacts, through the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Their study- published in ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’ (PNAS)- yields evidence that society’s attitudes to women and some ethnic groups are shifting positively.

The words we use have the power to alter others’ perceptions of us

Aided by the algorithm ‘Word Embeddings’, the application of a geometric vector to particular words to place them in a specific point in space, we can utilise the ‘links and relationships between words’ to monitor changes in the way that we talk to one another. This technique is already used in newspapers, books and expansive data sets. In fact, it underlies social media platforms: the force behind your Facebook newsfeed and friend suggestions, recommended YouTube videos, LinkedIn suggestions and every Google search page rank you’ve ever made. In other words, the vocabulary we frequently use online, from the location on our LinkedIn profile to a frequent search for our favourite actor or actress on Netflix governs the information we are exposed to in the future. This is because algorithms use existing information and search history to tailor the web content to your preferences, interests and habits. Hence, it’s no surprise when an earlier search you made on Google for ‘cheap holidays in Spain’ is reciprocated by an advertisement on your Facebook newsfeed for ‘beach resorts in Majorca’. It may be beneficial to have a computer that, akin to your local barista who already knows ‘your usual’ order at a local coffee shop, knows your interests.

The ‘Word embeddings’ algorithm is used in social media. Source: flickr

However, this isn’t always favourable. For example, when someone experiencing ‘heart burn’, makes a search containing the words ‘heart’ and ‘symptoms’ together, Google instantly generates the most severe results of ‘symptoms of heart attack’ and ‘11 signs you might have heart disease’. This is simply because algorithms rank webpages by the most frequent use of the words in your search, regardless of whether they will actually match your symptoms. This presents a challenge, insofar as the risk of being misled or unnecessarily distressed as a consequence of skewed search results merits greater awareness of when we should and shouldn’t consult the internet, instead of trained professionals. The best way to tackle this is to refine your searches to ensure they are precise and direct; much like you would when researching for a scientific report- avoiding vague searches such as ‘recent studies on the effects of caffeine’ and replacing them with ‘large scale double-blind placebo controlled trials on the physiological effects of caffeine in humans, 2018’. When you become conscious of the way in which the internet and social media platforms interpret the language fed to them, you are far more likely to make educated searches and spot biased content.

‘Gender bias’ Source: pixabay

Associated with this is the concept of ‘anchoring’- a cognitive bias involving an individual’s tendency to rely on the first piece of information given to them during decision-making. Resultantly, the person will alter their estimations based on this ‘primary reference point’- the ‘anchor’. A good example of this is the initial price chosen for a car on sale setting the standard of subsequent negotiations. This means that prices lower than the high reference point appear more reasonable, even though they are significantly higher than the car’s true value. So, it’s easy to see how bias can be advantageous to the psychology of marketing, often leading to the consumer unconsciously making a considerable loss. In this way, biases become economic parasitism.

Globally, the evolution of gender bias is a dynamic process. Since the previously closer attachment of the word ‘honourable’ to ‘man’ than ‘woman’, the past century marks an increasing alignment of the public’s perception of gender and ethnicity with significant ‘social movements and demographic changes in the US census’, comments Madison Dapcevich, from Iflscience. Notably, since the enfranchisement of women in America on August 26th, 1920- the culmination of decades of campaigning for women’s rights and the use of gender-neutral language – there has been a pivotal shift in gender bias, nudging society closer to gender equality. Further, the replacement of words such as ‘mankind’ with ‘humanity’, occupations such as ‘salesman’ with ‘salesperson’ and ‘him’ or ‘her’ with ‘they’ and ‘their’ promote gender neutrality and inclusivity. This progression is highlighted by the election of the first female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher, in 1979, the first 32 women ordained as priests in the Church of England, during March 1994 and this year’s female jockey trio competing in the Grand National- Katie Walsh, Bryony Frost and Rachael Blackmore.

Biases are impactful within and without, reaching as deeply as our self-worth. A type of bias named ‘Attribution bias’ stems from one’s assessment of their own and others’ actions. When exhibiting this kind of bias in judging others, a person tends to assume that another’s actions are predominantly driven by internal factors like personality. Whereas, they assume their own actions to be the result of external influences. This is characterised by a ‘Self-serving bias’, whereby one’s perceptual process adapts to enhance their self-esteem, making them likely to view themselves in an overly favourable manner. This becomes detrimental when their success is attributed to personal abilities and efforts, yet their personal failure is ascribed only to external factors. In all walks of life, from the workplace to the home, this bias has the unhealthy effect of preventing growth, change and improvement- in relationships between colleagues, siblings, friends and even the government with society.

[There is a] closer attachment of the word ‘honourable’ to ‘man’ than ‘woman’

At the heart of today’s technological society ‘Media bias’-perceptual bias of journalists, news producers and those in the field of mass media during the selection of events, reporting of stories and how they are presented- is a prevalent issue. This is especially significant, as a study published in January this year- using the Edelman Barometer- identifies that just 24% of Britons trust the news and information they read on social media platforms like Twitter, instagram and Facebook.

Generally, Media bias applies to more widespread breeching of the standards of journalism, rather than individual bias. This can be seen as ‘Agenda-setting’ (‘the ability of the news media to influence the importance placed on topics of the public agenda’), ‘Gatekeeping’ (filtration of the information distributed and communicated to the public in order to deliver ‘a limited set of messages’ every day), and ‘Sensationalism’ (when news stories are presented in a provocative manner or with the intention of inducing interest or excitement, to the detriment of accuracy). Biases such as these can be driven by myriad factors, including government influence and censorship, owners’ influence, pressure from advertisers, selection of staff and presumed preferences of target audiences.

just 24% of Britons trust the news and information they read on social media platforms like Twitter, instagram and Facebook.

Suffice it to say, these examples of prominent biases we face today are not exhaustive. But, why are we biased in the first place? Well, oftentimes, people are unaware of their own biases: ‘implicit bias’. However, ‘having implicit biases does not make someone good or not-so-good’, remarks Cheryl Staats, race and ethnicity researcher at Ohio state university, Columbus. Indeed, Staats argues that biases are a lens through which our brain can begin to make sense of the word. Moreover, of the 11 million bits of information recognised each second (bits being units of information)- only 16-40 are consciously processed; most is unconsciously managed. It’s for this reason that humans can notice a slowing car at a junction, yet simultaneously have no conscious awareness of the wind tussling with the trees or birds chirping merrily nearby. Our brains look for the fast lane: categorising information for easy access. Hence, we group things together by association, such as where a dog can be seen as a cuddly and companionable pet to some individuals, whilst a dangerous and dependent animal to others, as a result of differing experiences and exposure to different stories. In this way, one might create a falsifiable sense of the concept of a dog as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, causing unfair biases to develop.

But, how do implicit biases arise? Stats suggests that such biases are shaped over the course of one’s lifetime, through exposure to messages. Direct or indirect racism, sexism and stereotyping are all branches of bias. The gradualness of biases deepens the complexity of their roots, for example words said, read or heard- from the contents of a scientific publication to the current debate about the role of ‘echo chambers’ and fake news- confirming voters’ pre-existing beliefs about gun-control and immigration- in driving the success of Donald Trump in the US presidential election.

‘We should embrace diversity’. Source:flickr

It’s important to acknowledge that you might be biased, as this ‘is the first step to understanding how you treat other people- and trying to change your own behaviour’, says Antonya Gonzalez, Psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.  ‘Learning about different social groups who engage in positive behaviours can help you to unconsciously associate that group with positivity’. Hence, she reminds us of the value of diversity in media, allowing us to ‘learn about people who defy traditional stereotypes.’ This premise is also applicable in training to help combat adults’ bias against women, says Hillard at Adrian College.

We should embrace diversity, rather than deny its existence.

It’s important to acknowledge that you might be biased

This is achievable by surrounding yourself with people who are different to you, so you can view ‘them as individuals, rather than part of a stereotypical group’. Becoming aware of ours and others’ biases doesn’t require a full scale risk assessment or critical analysis of the information we are exposed to; it   requires our questioning. Consider the d.e.v.i.l.s in the details. Is there a lack of diversity? Is there evidence to support the information? Whose viewpoint does the information come from? Does it have positive or negative impacts? Is the language loaded, and thus misleading or inaccurate? Do stories and headlines match, or are there notable contradictions?

So, it seems bias is not just the topic of the recycled question that appears in almost every GCSE Mathematics exam paper: ‘Why would Dan’s survey on the amount of time students spend playing sport, collected from the the first 10 boys on the register for his PE class, not produce a good sample?’ It’s more far-reaching than that. With a whole host of unconscious biases contaminating our sense of objectivity, it’s vital that we develop a sensitivity rather than sway-ability towards the viewpoints of ourselves and others. After all, if one is not open-minded, one cannot truly grow.

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