Unconscious biases

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Attractive people get a better deal in society than non-attractive people.

For example, attractive pupils are more popular with their teachers and get better evaluations from them.

Attractive applicants stand a better chance of landing a job, and once they start working, they tend to earn higher salaries.

Attractive people are less likely to be found guilty in court, and when they are, they tend to get shorter sentences.

In fact, in almost all social situations, attractive people get better reactions than non-attractive people do, according to Social Issues Research Centre, a non-profit think tank based in the United Kingdom.


This "beauty bias" is prevalent throughout society. Yet, few people are aware that they are biased in this way.

If you were to ask the average teacher, employer or juror if they are more favourably disposed towards attractive people, they would most probably answer "no".

And as far as they are aware, they would be telling the truth.


The trouble is we are not always consciously aware of the attitudes that shape our behaviour.

We may believe - quite sincerely - that everyone should be treated with equal consideration and respect regardless of age, race, gender, sexual orientation and appearance.

But we may nonetheless be influenced by unconscious preferences and prejudices.

Social psychologists distinguish between explicit and implicit attitudes.

Explicit attitudes are attitudes that we are aware of, and that we are able to think about and discuss.

Implicit attitudes, on the other hand, are automatic and non-conscious. They influence our judgments without us even being aware of it.

Explicit and implicit attitudes often come into conflict.

For example, a person who genuinely believes that old and young people ought to be treated with equal respect may still unwittingly display a negative response towards elderly people.


Personally, I am very open to the idea that I may be influenced by unconscious preferences and prejudices.

So I was interested to discover, recently, that there is a psychological test, known as the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which can be used to measure implicit attitudes.

I was even more interested to discover Project Implicit, a virtual laboratory set up by American scientists, where it is possible to do some IATs online.

I took a couple of the tests and found the results fascinating - if a little disconcerting.

First of all, I did the Age IAT.

This measures the respondents' reaction times when they are instructed to associate words like "pain", "joy", "love" and "nasty" with photos of young and old faces.

Like most people who take the test, I was quicker to associate old people with bad words, and young people with good words, rather than the other way around.

This suggests that I have an automatic preference for young people compared with old people.

I then did the Weight IAT, which follows a similar format to the Age IAT, except that it uses pictures of fat and thin people rather than old and young ones.

On this test, my responses indicated that I have an implicit preference for thin people.

My results are not at all unusual.

Most people who do the Age IAT, even the elderly ones, tend to associate old with bad and young with good.

And most people who do the Weight IAT, even those who have no conscious preference between different weight groups, implicitly prefer thin people to fat people.


On the whole, I think that I learnt something useful about myself by doing these IATs.

They alerted me to the existence of some unconscious and unhelpful attitudes that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

Readers might like to try one or two tests themselves.

Project Implicit has IATs related not only to age and weight, but also to race, disability, gender-roles and sexuality.

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