THE BLOG

Hidden Biases, Broken Rules And Lessons From The Airport And Laundry

Exercising ‘discretion’ often translates into exercising bias.

26/04/2017 2:05 AM IST | Updated 30/04/2017 9:47 AM IST
Flightlevel80

Sant Kabir said that when the eyes and ears are open, even the leaves on the trees teach like pages from the scriptures. I caught myself complaining about an issue I am having with a research grant and realised that my eyes and ears were not fully open. I tried to put some of the lessons I learned by having my eyes and ears open to put this issue in a broader context.

Implicit bias is the natural human tendency to judge or behave in a prejudicial way without even being aware of it.

As a faculty member, I have to write proposals to get funding for students, post docs and also for my own summer salary. Once the proposals are funded, it is very rare for them to get cancelled. Unfortunately, one of the proposals I got funded is stuck because the funding agency itself is not getting the allocated funds from the government. As the money trickles in from the government, the program manager is moving the funds out to all the researchers who have been funded. This is an interesting situation because who gets their grant money first is entirely up to the "discretion" of the program manager. Obviously, everybody whose funding gets delayed feels slighted. The program manager is obviously just doing his job but clearly there is plenty of room to pick favourites. Situations like this offer a perfect opportunity for implicit biases to play tricks with one's own mind.

Implicit bias is the natural human tendency to judge or behave in a prejudicial way without even being aware of it. It is an outcome of years of integration of cultural mores or racial and gender biases. It is not interchangeable with racism or sexism but can do serious damage in many situations. The pernicious thing is that it can never be cured. One can only be trained or train oneself to mindfully avoid implicit bias. Considering the myriad decisions everyone makes during a given day, it can be hard to notice one's own implicit biases crop up. The sad fact is also that even the so-called data-driven algorithms that flash targeted advertisements or job opportunities or potential partner matches, are found to inherit the implicit biases of their creators. So much for the cold-hearted objectivity of robots!

The middle seat syndrome

Implicit biases are on display all the time. Since I fly quite often, I watch with amusement as seat assignments are announced at airports as the flights are boarding. If you do not pick your seat ahead of time or if you are not a preferred customer due to your frequent flyer status or for being in business class, then you will be subject to the "discretion" of the gate-agent who is assigning seats. The employee is just doing his/her job. Someone must get the middle seat. But there can be no concrete rules other than that those with cheap tickets and low-mileage status are going to be the lucky ones with a middle seat.

If someone is being fussy, then the gate-agent will look them in the eye and politely say how sorry they are that only the middle seat is available.

But if you fly often enough, you can easily see the patterns. If someone is being fussy, then the gate-agent will look them in the eye and politely say how sorry they are that only the middle seat is available. If you are well-dressed you have better odds of getting a good seat than a shoddily dressed person. And so on. This middle-seat syndrome is a perfect example of how one can do one's job exactly as required and yet, can happily practice all of one's implicit biases with impunity.

Dryer lint

The other thing I watch with just as much fascination is the cleaning of the dryer lint from shared laundry machines. Everybody on my floor where I live knows each other and we are all perfectly polite to each other, greet each other happily and even make small chat or invite each other to parties. But something mysterious happens when nobody is watching. The rule is that after you use the dryer, you are supposed to clean the lint trap. It takes only five seconds. And yet, on most Sunday mornings when I go to use the dryer, I find that someone has not bothered to clean out the lint. So there is clearly at least one person who lives on the same floor and must appear to be nice when you meet him/her, who is happily ignoring the simple rule of cleaning out the dryer lint. This tendency to ignore the simple rules and one's neighbourly duty is also quite common to humans.

We are wont to neglect our duties and jobs when nobody is watching. And even when everybody is watching... we happily let our implicit biases control our behaviour in the name of "discretion."

Cicero wrote a book entitled On Duty where he recognises that simply being human saddles us with duties; our own moral expectations also result in duties. A job is something we must all do to earn a living and we can only hope that we enjoy it or get paid enough to tolerate it. Duty is something we expect to fulfill because of our own moral expectations. And yet, as humans, we are wont to neglect our duties and jobs when nobody is watching. And even when everybody is watching, we may do our job well but happily let our implicit biases control our behaviour in the name of "discretion." Google did an extensive internal review on its implicit biases. They found that simply talking about it can help employees catch themselves before acting on implicit biases. We obviously need to teach kids from an early age to keep their ears and eyes open so that they can perform their jobs and duties without their implicit biases coming in the way. It takes constant vigilance.

I don't have to worry about the middle seat since I have a lifelong status of a frequent-flyer on an airline. But I am worried about that upgrade to business class for my return flight from Mumbai in two weeks. I better meditate and be ready for the long flight in economy in case I don't get upgraded.

More On This Topic