Diversity Week: Avoiding unconscious bias in research

Very few people admit to being racist, sexist, ageist, homophobic, or otherwise discriminatory. But even those who don’t feel hatred towards a particular group can still exhibit a bias.

This is called “unconscious bias,” and as the name suggests, it’s not intentional.

An unconscious bias is a deep-rooted preference that someone holds, but isn’t aware of. That bias may privilege the able-bodied over the disabled for instance, or gay people over straight people.

Unconscious biases can create all kinds of inequities.

An Australian study found that a job applicant with a Chinese name has to apply for 68% more jobs to get the same number of interviews as an applicant with an Anglo-Saxon name.

A female writer sent the first few pages of her book to 50 literary agents under her own (female) name, and got 2 requests to see the manuscript. She then sent out the exact same material to 50 agents under an invented male name, and got 17 requests.

Universities are not immune to bias – one US-based study found that professors were more likely to respond favourably to an emailed research enquiry from a prospective postgrad student if the student’s name implied that they were male and Caucasian.

As an individual, it’s impossible to be totally without bias. Everyone has some group with which they feel more comfortable, and accordingly, some group with which they feel less comfortable. That doesn’t mean we’re all raving bigots – it just means we need to be aware of our biases.

In a research context, absolutely every researcher has some kind of bias. (This is one reason why a diverse population of researchers is crucial.)

Unconscious bias can affect your results if you work with human participants. For example, say your research methodology involves approaching people on the street with questions. Are you approaching all types of people equally, or are there some types of people you are more or less comfortable approaching?

Random selection is a great way to ensure that unconscious biases don’t compromise your research. But not every project allows for totally random sampling. A good question to ask is this: does my research sample proportionally represent my population of interest?

If you’re unsure as to whether your research method sufficiently eliminates unconscious bias, talk to your supervisor and/or an ethics advisor.

It’s also important to be self-aware. You can test yourself for all kinds of different unconscious biases using the online quizzes called Implicit Association Tests (IATs) over at Project Implicit. The tests were designed by psychologists at Harvard, the University of Virginia and the University of Washington. They can identify whether you harbour a bias for black or white, thin or fat, old or young, and so on.

It might be uncomfortable for us to recognise our biases – whether conscious or unconscious – but it makes us better researchers.

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