Mitigating Racial Bias Requires Conscious Effort


“The problem of bias in facial recognition systems is perhaps one of the easiest to understand and to solve: a computer only knows the kinds of faces it has been shown. Showing the computer more diverse faces will make it more accurate.”

—Rose Eveleth, “The Inherent Bias of Facial Recognition” on Motherboard

“The studies are numerous and conclusive – we have a significant race problem in empathy. While it will be hard for most of us to know whether or not our brains are reacting equitably in situations that call for empathy, it should be easier to build concern and care for people of other races on a conscious level. Cultivating a more diverse group of friends and engaging in some perspective-taking exercises, mindfully acknowledging the similarities between yourself and others, seem like good steps in the right direction.”

—Princess Ojiaku, “Is everybody a racist?” on Aeon

The Power of Obliquity

M0015339 Indirect percussion method practised by Apache Indians
CC BY 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

We have a few more items to chalk up to the power of unconscious stimuli and bias on our feeble human minds:

  1. The basic shape of a logo is enough to bias your perception of that company’s product.

“Five experiments document that the mere circularity and angularity of a brand logo is powerful enough to affect perceptions of the attributes of a product or company,” the researchers write in the Journal of Consumer Research.

—”The Shape of a Logo Has a Powerful Impact On Consumers” on Association for Psychological Science

2. White college students associate black faces with violence and guns, even when those faces are as young as 5 years old.

“Our findings suggest that, although young children are typically viewed as harmless and innocent, seeing faces of five-year-old Black boys appears to trigger thoughts of guns and violence,” said lead study author Andrew Todd, an assistant professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Iowa.

—”Faces of Black Children as Young as Five Evoke Negative Biases” on Association for Psychological Science

3. On a more positive front, conducting a value affirmation exercise can not only mitigate the “stereotype threat” for individual students who may be discriminated against, it furthermore seems to transfer that benefit to the entire class.

New research suggests that when students who are vulnerable to being stereotyped complete exercises that cause them to reflect on their own personal values, they perform better in class — and so do other students around them, even if those other students don’t complete the self-reflection tasks themselves.

—Jacqueline Howard, “Shielding Students From Stereotypes Helps Way More Than We Thought” on the Huffington Post

As the lead researcher in the latter study stated, “Who would have thought that the indirect benefits of an intervention could be almost as large than the direct benefits?”

Yet more evidence that speaks to the power of oblique methods of influence.

For more posts on this blog about obliquity, click here.

Words Matter

“Using person-first language to describe people who have mental illnesses is not just an example of political correctness. These words matter. They influence people’s attitudes, and attitudes help determine behaviors. We make assumptions about people based on the words we use, and when we use the words “the mentally ill,” those assumptions lead to lower levels of tolerance and acceptance.” [Bold added]

—Darcy Haag Granello, “Labeling people as ‘The mentally ill’ increases stigma” on The Conversation

Diversity Mitigates Cognitive Bias

“When surrounded by people “like ourselves,” we are easily influenced, more likely to fall for wrong ideas. Diversity prompts better, critical thinking. It contributes to error detection. It keeps us from drifting toward miscalculation.

Our findings suggest that racial and ethnic diversity matter for learning, the core purpose of a university. Increasing diversity is not only a way to let the historically disadvantaged into college, but also to promote sharper thinking for everyone.”

–“Diversity Makes You Brighter”

Unconscious Bias


We’ve explored the concept of cognitive bias here before, and it’s an important idea to continuously remind ourselves of, as we all are prone to fall prey to problematic thinking each day, given our brain’s reliance on short cuts, heuristics and stereotypes.

Here’s a useful short video from the Royal Society on “Understanding Unconscious Bias” to give you a quick refresher, or introduction, as the case may be:

Further posts here on the topic:

Scientists are at the mercy of cognitive bias, too

How Scientists Can Fool Themselves—And How They Can Stop
How Scientists Can Fool Themselves—And How They Can Stop

Guess what? Cognitive bias also influences researchers. Important to bear in mind with research in education.

So here’s another few cognitive biases we can add to our list:

  1. Hypothesis Myopia
  2. Texas Sharpshooter
  3. Aysmmetric Attention
  4. Just-So Storytelling


The Majority Illusion

DarwinPeacock, Maklaan [CC BY 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Here’s another cognitive bias to add to our list: the majority illusion. This illusion is not only important to consider for those of us who wade through social media frequently, but more importantly, for those of us who work in schools.

The majority illusion refers to “the local impression that a specific attribute is common when the global truth is entirely different,” according to a recent article on network research on MIT Technology Review.

Kids are especially influenced by their immediate social networks, in addition to their online ones. This study suggests that we are most especially susceptible to the habits and perceptions of our more popular or well-connected acquaintances, believing that many others may be doing or thinking what they are, even when it may only reflect that of a few (big surprise). This can be understood both in its positive and negative effects:

In other words, the majority illusion can be used to trick the population into believing something that is not true.

. . . that immediately explains a number of interesting phenomena. For a start, it shows how some content can spread globally while other similar content does not—the key is to start with a small number of well-connected early adopters fooling the rest of the network into thinking it is common.

. . . Various studies have shown that teenagers consistently overestimate the amount of alcohol and drugs their friends consume. “If heavy drinkers also happen to be more popular, then people examining their friends’ drinking behavior will conclude that, on average, their friends drink more than they do,” say Lermann and co.

This points to a potential key to shifting the mindsets and behavior of an entire school: “identify the popular nodes that can create the majority illusion for the target audience. These influencerati must then be persuaded to adopt the desired behavior or product.”

Get the most well-connected kids sold on the importance of learning and reading first. You might then see a big shift in the attitudes of others.

Become Aware of Your Cognitive Biases

el cerebro

We’ve explored the fallibility of human perception, given the influence of environment, contexts, social relationships, incidental stimuli, stereotypes, and heuristics on this blog before (see especially, How Can We Mitigate the Errors in Our Minds?).

Anyone who pays heed to education reform debates will be witness to—and perpetrator of—any number of biases. Lifehacker shared a great graphic from Business Insider‘s Samantha Lee and Shana Lebowitz that outlines some possible cognitive biases.

Screenshot from 2015-09-20 12:54:39

Such biases are also important to consider in our classrooms and schools. Stereotyping bears a well-studied impact on the behavior and performance of students, but what about the impact of these other cognitive biases? How many of these might arise during a team meeting or in classroom interactions? I can think of any number of “data inquiry” meetings where these biases have been on full display.

Another great resource I’d like to point you to is The site has freely available quizzes and lessons that will help you to understand the fallibility in your own thinking and become more aware of your biases. I especially like their tool on the Probabilistic Fallacy.

I’ll leave you with an interesting TED Talk (conducted at Burning Man, no less) from the founder of, Spencer Greenberg, on how you can use “probabilistic thinking” to overcome what he terms “dichotomous thinking”: