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Do Unconscious Biases Make You Choose the Wrong People?

If you were choosing a partner to compete alongside you in a quiz show, upon what would you base your decision?  Intelligence?  Quiz show experience?  What about how fat or thin his or her face is?

Most of us understand that we can be unconsciously biased.  Even Jesse Jackson, the famous African-American politician and activist, admits to being relieved when hearing footsteps behind him, he looks over his shoulder and sees a white guy.  Such unintentional biases can translate to hiring decisions.  Studies have shown that sending otherwise identical resumes to employers yields callbacks more often when the name of the (fake) applicant’s name sounds “white” instead of “black.”

The good news is that we can choose to take note of our unconscious biases and make a conscious choice to not pass over the black applicant or the female applicant.  The bad news is that our vexatious unconscious biases extend beyond race, color, and creed. Without realizing, we may fall victim to biases against things we don’t even think about.

For example, how “competent” does a person’s face look?  Alex Todorov, a psychologist at Princeton University, has studied how we perceive characteristics like warmth, dominance, and competence in faces.  We judge a person’s competence based primarily on how close together her eyes are.

If you want to watch more of these computer generated faces morph along these and other illusory dimensions, check out his website:

These examples are not just fun to look at.  Todorov and other scientists have collected a wealth of data to suggest that the shape of a face does not predict a person’s real warmth, dominance or competence. However, it does predict the decisions that we make about that person.  In one frightening example, Todorov has shown that the shape of the face plays a major role in how we choose our nation’s leaders.  During the past two congressional elections, researchers in his lab had people independently rate how “competent” each candidate’s face looked.  Note that these were not educated voters- the people rating the faces had no knowledge about the candidates or how competent they actually were. All they rated was how competent the candidates’ faces looked.  These ratings predicted nearly 70% of election results!

Does this sort of thing affect the way that we choose talent?  To answer this, let’s return to the opening question.  How would you choose a quiz show partner?   A recent study from Mahzarin Banaji’s lab at Harvard University posed this exact question.  Overwhelmingly, people say that they’d choose their partner based on intelligence, experience, or other relevant criteria.  But when forced to actually choose hypothetical partners in a series of forced trade-offs, people do something quite different.  It turns out that participants were willing to trade off fully 11 IQ points in order to have a thinner quiz show partner.

Clearly, biases that we don’t even know we have can impact the decisions that we make.  When hiring someone for an important job in your company, choosing a less intelligent person because they are a little thinner means losing money, plain and simple.

So what can we do?

To start, think twice before you look up candidates’ pictures on Facebook before deciding whether to interview them.  Better yet, when you use Cangrade to hire people, consider using the feature that allows you to hide names and faces.  That way you simply select the right candidates, without any chance of unconscious bias influencing your decision. We’ll all be better off if employers choose people based on merit, skill, and personality rather than race, weight, or how close together their eyes are!