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Study: Bias Drops Dramatically for Sexual Orientation and Race – But Not Weight (wbur.org)
47 points by jonathanjaeger 62 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 77 comments

One of the core authors of the IAT paper administered here to measure implicit bias released a paper last year showing how the test doesn't actually measure bias, and how it is not clear what this kind of test actually measures.

Many of us wish that there was a simple link between an unconscious bias, as measured by the popular IAT test administered by Hardvard or similar tests, and biased behavior. This would give a clear path to fix any bias problem. However, Brian Nosek who is one of the co-authors of the IAT test just released a paper [1] that show that changes in implicit bias don’t lead to changes in behavior. You can find a summary of the article and its findings here [2].

The paper examining 499 studies over 20 years involving 80,859 participants that used the IAT and other, similar measures. They discovered two things: One is that the correlation between implicit bias and discriminatory behavior appears weaker than previously thought. They also conclude that there is very little evidence that changes in implicit bias have anything to do with changes in a person’s behavior. These findings, they write, "produce a challenge for this area of research." The finding that changes in implicit bias don’t lead to changes in behavior, Forscher says, "should be stunning."

"I see implicit bias as a potential means to an end, something that tells us what to do and some possible remedies for what we see in the world," Forscher says. "So if there’s little evidence to show that changing implicit bias is a useful way of changing those behaviors, my next question is ‘What should we do?’"

[1] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/308926636_A_Meta-An...

[2] https://www.chronicle.com/article/Can-We-Really-Measure-Impl...

This is my biggest confusion reading the summary. Since all kinds of inputs can lead to the same measured output (such as being more scared about the entire theme and self-censoring), how would they single out 'implicit bias' and decide to label it as the cause?

Also http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/research/understanding-implic...

"Implicit biases are malleable. Our brains are incredibly complex, and the implicit associations that we have formed can be gradually unlearned through a variety of debiasing techniques."

I don't know... isn't it almost by definition not 'implicit bias' then?

Yes, it is shoddy science or possibly not science at all. Testing an assertion using known measures that have been shown to not test what you want to test does not add to the scientific knowledge and instead subtract by adding noise.

Building upon tests that has not held up to scrutiny without having a good argument for why it is different this time violates how science explores and builds knowledge. Science is a technique that produce a network of knowledge [1], where the core nodes are viewed as facts because they have successfully held up to scrutiny by other pieces of knowledge and has worked as a foundation for other pieces of knowledge.

In science pieces of knowledge that builds upon claims that are shown to be invalid, such as the IAT test, are viewed as inheriting the problems of the knowledge it builds upon.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bxdBRKmPhe4&feature=youtu.be...

There is such focus on being tolerant regardless of sexual orientation, but many more people face much greater discrimination on a wider variety of issues, such as being handicapped, unattractive, mentally challenged, etc. I wonder why these groups don't get anywhere as much focus as the small number of gender non-conformist? Seems from a utilitarian perspective a much greater reduction of human suffering would be achieved by learning to appreciate the groups I mentioned, than the current mega focus on gender non-conformists. I think it is because gender-nonconformists can still be highly intelligent and attractive, thus are still useful from our society's image and performance driven perspective.

I think you're misreading a few things, and inverting some causes and effects here.

There are people who, for political purposes, demonize people for their sexual orientation or gender identity, and actively seek to enact laws designed to punish and/or humiliate those people. However, I'm not aware at this time of any particular attempt to pass laws to make it more difficult and dangerous for, say, ugly people to use the restroom, or forbidding handicapped people from getting married (that's not to say these things are not possible! there's certainly plenty of systemic bias against these groups, and there have been political movements against disabled individuals in the past--including some which categorized "gender non-conformity" as a mental illness--but that's not the focus of current political movements that I'm aware of).

So, naturally the immediate focus is on pushing back against the currently demonized group. In the future, when the focus of demagogues who invent enemies to foment rage and gain votes shifts to handicapped individuals or overweight people, then it will be critical to focus on fighting those forms of hate.

If the focus is on enacting laws to make society more accepting of ostracized groups, still the gender nonconformists are a very small minority of those who are oppressed in our society, see lists I've provided.

Now, if you are only focused on repealing laws, then you might have a case, but a lot of the gender nonconformist activism focuses on positive laws and other forms of punishment on those who don't accept them. So, insofar as there is a positive push, then it is only a small interest group out of the suffering multitudes that are benefited and my case stands that the focus on gender nonconformism is myopic.

> forbidding handicapped people from getting married

It's worth reading [0] If you think this is the case.

[0] https://wheresyourdog.com/2015/08/28/dont-be-fooled-love-has...

I feel like this varies based on your personal experience. For example, I've been exposed to a variety of these things in close family and friends from a young age (mental handicaps, eyesight problems/legal blindness, and elderly relatives who are now wheelchair-bound or otherwise restricted). With these experiences in mind, and evaluating the people I surround myself with, I encounter very little discrimination towards these types of people in my day-to-day. But that's just based on my perception and my limited experience. It could be that outside of my social bubble, there are people who actively discriminate against those with disabilities.

Could you elaborate on the kind of discrimination you're thinking of? I'm sure people who can't see have a harder time getting jobs (and for sure have to work harder to overcome things like websites with screen-reader-hostile content), but I'm not sure if you're referring to subconscious discrimination or explicit discrimination.

The subconscious stuff is harder to deal with because it might not even hit a surface level. On the other hand, the open hostility that the LGBTQ+ people faced was easier to 'diagnose' or recognize, and thus begin dealing with.

It seems pretty plausible there is a very large number of the groups I mention that rarely or even never sees the light of day due to how they are looked down upon by society at large. Some cannot enter the normal realms of human interaction, such as the workplace, so we are almost unaware of their existence.

People not even knowing one exists seems, in a way, an even more dispiriting sort of discrimination than that faced by the current persecuted group du jour.

More of these 'unseen' groups: the elderly, the extreme rural poor, the home bound, the institutionally insane, those suffering from debilitating disease, foster children shut away in group homes. And this is only considering groups we can easily access within our own nation. Much more even greater suffering in other countries.

Rarely do I see these groups mentioned in the media focus on the suffering and oppressed, but it seems intuitively a much larger grouping, and possibly enduring much more suffering than gender nonconformists.

My guess would be because those in the former camp (sexual or racial minority) have been actively persecuted and deprived of life and liberty.

In many places homosexuals gets ostracized by family and community, gets beaten up and killed, get sent to hell (or at least told they will be). The other groups you mention does not face that kind of persecution. Although in some contexts like employment I'm sure It is more difficult to be handicapped than gay.

You’re just voicing your intuition, right? That’s not based on anything you’ve seen measured?

I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that uglier people are more subject to family violence, loan discrimination, etc. I am not aware of the science on the subject. But are you saying you are certain enough about the science that we should forget about it?

I suspect many of these comments are perceiving that OP is trying to minimize the seriousness of race and sexuality based discrimination, and pushing back on that. That’s valiant, but I don’t think that’s what OP said.

I think we should care about racism and care about other forms of discrimination too. I don’t think it’s a zero sum game, and the more practice we have finding empathy the better we will treat everyone.

This is a perfect example actually... sometimes racism manifests as “ugly policing” and so taking appearance policing more seriously will actually help us be less racist.

Not based on anything? Are you trolling? Some countries literally have death penalty for being gay.

Many kinds of discrimination exists and some get overlooked, but you are not really helping anyone by denying reality.

Not trolling, no, just trying to understand.

So you’re specifically focused on institutionalized violence? I agree that gay people and many racial groups have special status there.

I thought we were talking about violence that’s not overtly state sanctioned, like violence against women, etc. That was my confusion. I live in the U.S. and that’s the bulk of the violence I see against gay people, black people, etc. What I would call illegal violence, held in place by cultural norms more than overt institutions.

I'm not specifically focused on anything, I just mention a single well-known fact (which you can easily verify) to dispel that I'm just "voicing my intuition" and "not based on anything".

Now if you sincerely believe ugly people face even worse persecution than this, go ahead and argue this with the knowledge and evidence you have. Don't just poison the well and move the goalpost - that makes people assume you are not arguing in good faith.

Yes, I see an almost exclusive focus on just a few types of discrimination, but there is discrimination that is more crosscutting, widespread, and more ignored.

Captain Obvious here:

Its not that we are a lot more tolerant towards race/orientation but rather humans being vastly intolerant towards anything that is biologically negative.

Our brain is programmed by thousends of years of evolution to reject unattractive/sick/(insert any disability) partners.

This is something our whole civilisation is based on and i dont think it will change.

And i say that as a pretty unattractive person. Fortunetely trumps like power, money and status exist to help few of us.

Wouldn't that apply even more to gender nonconformism which stops reproduction?

You try to mix psychological concepts with pure biological ones. Those values are burnt so deep in our DNA that something we comprehend with our mind like "gender" has nowhere near the same magnitude of impact.

This feels a bit off to me. Most of the people I've met who are really passionate about fighting discrimination against LGBT people have also been very interested in fighting fatphobia (discrimination against overweight people) and ableism (discrimination against the disabled). I think the difference may be that accommodations for disabled and obese people are often more difficult or expensive, although I don't have numbers or anything to prove that.

Accessibility for the disabled is also less of a "culture war"-type issue, so progress (or lack of progress) doesn't tend to be as visible.

The unspoken one is heightism for men.

It’s well known that tall people earn more, are promoted preferentially, as another example.

American society has come a long way in treating mentally challenged people with dignity and respect. But for some reason it's apparently still culturally acceptable to mock and discriminate against people in the roughly 70 – 90 IQ range; they're on the low side of normal but not low enough to be diagnosed as intellectually disabled. I see that attitude all the time among technologists and the cultural elite.

>There is such focus on being tolerant regardless of sexual orientation, but many more people face much greater discrimination on a wider variety of issues

So you think you know more about how commonly LGBTQIA+ people are discriminated against than LGBTQIA+ people themselves? You think you are an authority on something you seemingly have never experienced. Think about that for a second. This is implicit bias. Learn to trust minorities when they say they're being disrespected, marginalized, etc.

Also, gender-noncomformists are gaining respect in mainstream society because of their own work. Don't try to theorize away the blood, sweat, and tears of LGBTQIA+ activists.

Starts with the media narrative, and the media narrative starts with those preferred by or employed in the media. One can watch marketing content containing humans to see trends they attempt to drive or trends they don't. I'll reserve comment on whether it's good or bad that this influence works (if you believe the results of these studies and how they apply at a macro level vs a micro one).

Fantastic comment on reddit regarding how unscientific these "implicit bias" tests are:


There's even some evidence that merely taking the IAT can change people's behavior in ways that look like greater unfriendliness towards those at risk of discrimination:


Tbh, we all have qualms about psychological studies in general, especially coming from a physical scientist (physics) like myself. Every time I see data points where the error bars overlap and the authors declare an difference between the points, my gut says, "that's BS." But then again, they can't just "run more experiments" like I can, so we're left with what they have.

I'm not sure what the solution is.

One of the accidental biases I think is introduced to people by their schooling is the idea that all problems have solutions. This is not a deliberate bias or anything, but an accidental one introduced by the fact that the entire process of being educated is basically being walked down a cultivated garden trail in which you are presented with a series of carefully-designed problems where the answers are intended to help your understanding of some topic. But in the real world, problems don't always have answers. If you can't get the data to answer a question, the correct answer is to not answer the question. If you can't gather enough data to separate the error bars, then you don't have an answer to the question. All you can say is that the effect, if it exists, isn't large, and you're not too sure about the effect. If what you have is not sufficient to make a call... stop.

Once you see this clearly, the idea that one can be literally unable to gather enough data, but somehow one is obligated to just create an answer even so is just... weird.

And one of the major criticisms of the current scientific system is that you can't publish a paper that says "We looked for X and didn't find it", so there's massive incentive to just force an answer out. And when you force an answer out, whereever the answer came from... it isn't the data. It's something else. Varies depending on the topic, of course, but it's certainly not the data.

(By contrast, in life we must frequently create answers to questions we don't have enough data to scientifically answer the question. That's the nature of the ride we're on. But it is improper to force answers in the scientific domain.)

> One of the accidental biases I think is introduced to people by their schooling is the idea that all problems have solutions.

This. I've been trying to find a way to articulate that for months.

I would argue that the replication crisis is a sign of improved rigor, but certain parts of psychology is more political than science and hence doesn't replicate well. The positive news is that psychology is in the process of establishing a clear methodology, which means it is becoming a science, and as a consequence we are seeing the replication crisis for everything that doesn't hold water relative to this methodology.

Huge wins are things such as BIG5 etc, and IAT being administered at scale before it was validated seems like a huge mistake.

Unlike being of a certain skin color or sexual orientation being overweight is actually bad for your health and both mental and physical performance. I'm not surprised bias is not falling.

> Unlike being of a certain skin color or sexual orientation being overweight is actually bad for your health and both mental and physical performance.

That also would have been once an argument used against homosexuality.

Important to remember that AIDS was first called GRIDS (gay-related immune deficiency syndrome).

Are you saying you don't believe it's unhealthy to be obese?

No he is saying that homosexual behaviour was considered a health risk. There were plenty of bigots who even called aids punishment from god.

But we do know homosexuality is not a health risk while obesity is very demonstrably a health risk. Are you really going to claim that obesity does not increase morbidity?

> But we do know homosexuality is not a health risk

In the 80's it was considered fact that homosexuality was a health risk. AIDs was a huge concern.

> In the 80's it was considered fact that homosexuality

This is untrue. You could say "it was considered by some/many/bigoted people" but I doubt it was ever true that the same percentage of people with relevant medical experience thought homosexuality was as unhealthy as obesity.

Even if it were true, it would be a straw man unless you were also claiming that all gay people had AIDS and/or it was impossible to have gay sex without contracting HIV.

All obese people are obese. Inside that bucket of the population, some people are genetically or culturally predisposed, but some significant portion of obese people are capable of making healthier choices and are failing to do so. I don't think it's right to go out of our way to make these people unhappy, but at the same time I think it's obviously better for everyone if society encourages these people to make healthier choices.

That was just fearmongering, we have countless studies today that state obesity is linked to a higher overall mortality rate.

There was at least one scientific study, by authors who don't want it used to condemn homosexuality.

Summary: Study at the height of the AIDS death rate found that homosexuality led to shortened lifespan. AIDS death rate has declined dramatically, but there has not been a followup study.

Here's a politifact analysis: https://www.politifact.com/virginia/statements/2012/jun/07/b...

More recently, a 2014 pro-LGBT study claimed to show a shortened lifespan, attributed to prejudice: https://www.medicaldaily.com/can-prejudice-kill-you-lesbian-... though this failed replication ("No effect found") https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S027795361...

It's not. Even today, 67% of new cases of AIDs are among gay and bisexual men[1].

I don't argue that obesity isn't bad for you, but the issue is more complex, and I don't think it's right to stigmatize people for it.

[1] https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/group/msm/index.html

It's not their sexuality that causes the risk, it is unsafe sexual practices and increased prevalence of disease in that subpopulation. Which is to said AIDs and homosexuality correlate but homosexuality doesn't cause AIDs. Obesity causes, not just correlates, a whole slew of morbidities.

So their practicing of unsafe sexual practices would have justified the ostracization?

I think having negative attitudes towards unsafe sexual practices is fine. Having negative attitudes towards a sexual orientation that correlates with unsafe sexual practices is not fine. I think it is important to differentiate correlation and causation. If something causes morbidity, we should have negative attitudes towards it. If something correlates with morbidity, we need to tread carefully.

Well it is a greater health risk to engage in male homosexual sex than any typical heterosexaul or lesbian sex.

Regardless, unlike obesity, no one can remove their homosexuality and it is fairly insulting to suggest that.

Again, obesity has a causative effect on health, sexual preferences can correlate to health outcomes but those correlations are driven by sexual practices that cause increased risk. One can be gay (or any other sexual preference) and have any level of AIDs risk (ie a celibate homosexual man has a lower risk of AIDs than a sexually active heterosexual man/woman).

"It's OK to hate them because they deserve to be hated," is your argument. Look, you aren't always wrong, but there tend to be a few factors at work here. The thing about people is that we aren't just who we are in the moment, we're the sum of our experiences to date.

If you want people to change, you have to show people not only that there are alternatives, and how to obtain the alternatives, but lastly -- and most importantly -- why they should strive for those alternatives. If you're just a dick to them, it doesn't help anyone.

Judging someone for being fat is about like judging someone for not being born rich. Eating and exercise habits are taught very young, and are very hard to change. It's very rare you see someone who is obese who wasn't put on that path by their parents.

Rather than make disparaging comments, I'm sure you have a friend who you could invite out for a jog? Or over to your place for dinners once or twice a week? Not everyone has rewards wired in the same as you do, certainly if they are obese they know it and can do without your reminder, and likely they've struggled to lose the weight and just need a bit more support.

You can either judge, and feel smug, or choose to help a friend.

I would tend to argue that institutional racism is also bad for your health and mental well-being.

Sure it is, but institutional racism isn't a trait or property of any individual that they have control over.


Choices you can't assume to understand by just looking at someone though.

Since you have no way to know why any particular individual is whatever weight they are, it would be wrong to judge them for that.

> lifestyle choices

Where have we heard that before...

I'm not saying that obesity isn't bad for you, that shit will kill you, nor is it not understood how you can lose weight. But I feel like morbid obesity isn't as simple a solution as that, just like homosexuality can't be "cured" by simply stopping having sex with your own gender.

So you feel it's fair and reasonable to be biased against someone with a disease?

A disease of their own causing, I think was their point. People are probably likely to be biased against someone with terrible dentition from not brushing, or from using methamphetamines.

Then they can answer with a "Yes, it's okay to be biased against someone with a disease."

What disease is it that causes someone to routinely consume far more calories than required for their body to operate?

Excess food consumption is not a disease.

Now you can certainly argue, and quite effectively, that excess food consumption is addictive behavior, nearly identical to drug or alcohol abuse, but it's not a disease. There are conscious decisions made, and repeated. You are eating the donuts. You are drinking the vodka. You are shooting the heroin. You are smoking the cigarette. The substances might be addictive, but there is still an active and continuously ongoing decision making process going on.

Obesity is defined as a disease by the AMA. You clearly didn't know this.


Oh yes of course, it's a "disease" that happened to put a chocolate bar into my mouth last night.

You are so confident in your knowledge on this topic that you deflect and post an irrelevant link. Brilliant dialog and engagement, what a great debate we are having here.

BRB my disease is inflicting me with a carb-loaded bagel this morning. You see, it is not simply that I am overconsuming calories for whatever reason (addictive / compulsive reward seeking behavior? No certainly not), instead the simple physics of weight gain and weight loss is a disease.

Damnit, I dropped my iPhone on the floor. It must be that disease of physics known as gravity!

You are talking past each other.

Consider smokers. Addiction and pulmonary cancer is a disease. Smoking cigarettes everyday for decades is not per se but it's a cause.

We tend to have special moral treatment for diseases that are preventable and caused by one's own behavior.

Unsurprising, given that sexual orientation and race are not the result of choices. There is no decision to be made, no change in input will change the output.

Dietary habits are entirely active choices, it's an active decision making process, and weight is the outcome of those inputs. Gaining or losing weight is basic physics.

Perhaps obesity and food abuse/addiction should be looked at much the same way that drug abuse/addiction is looked at. Obesity is the natural outcome of food abuse.

> Obesity is the natural outcome of food abuse.

Or food enjoyment. A different reaction to the realization that we are mortal.

Sure, now replace "food" with "drug" or "alcohol" and it's the same argument, and much of the same pathology for that matter

There was some discussion about the methodology on Reddit, but I think there is some controversy over whether the methodology used to measure bias is sound. Basically, you're asked to categorize a series of items as quickly as possible, and the time taken is used to measure your "implicit bias".

You can try it out for yourself at: https://implicit.harvard.edu/

As usual for things where people can have strong incentives to lie, revealed preference is the only reliable indicator. But since that can't be observed in a psychology lab, instead we see questionable attempts at mind-reading like drawing spurious conclusions from response times. It would be just as scientific to hook the subject up to a polygraph and ask about biases.

Since obesity is generally seen as a moral failing rather than something that can't be controlled, people are comfortable admitting their bias. However, for race where it's rather unfair and also doing so will get you fired or worse they prefer not to.

Your biases when making quick decisions might not have any relevance to your biases when making day-to-day decisions or when making long term policy-like decisions.

The term "bias" is unhelpfully vague, as is the term "unconscious", so "unconscious bias" is a dialectical disaster zone.

The IAT tests measure association (that's what the "A" stands for), not "bias". Probably I associate "Norwegian" with "tall", but that doesn't necessarily mean I'll overestimate the height of a Norwegian person who is standing in front of me. Perhaps I will, but that's an entirely different question, and the bias might go in the other direction from the association: if you're expecting someone to be tall then they might look short when they're in fact average.

That makes sense, as orientation and race one are born with and we are also not born to be bias against them but nurtured. Where is weight (which we are certainly nurtured with every marketing element we see) its also nature and evolution to in general be attracted or find pleasing healthy people since that results in healthier communities and off spring in general. The same goes for the others they mentioned such as disability. So while the nurture part could certainly change our genetic bias towards healthy people most likely will not. Hopefully the nurture part will since people are bias against people who are healthy but not peak perfection healthy.

i think there is a big argument that the rise of obesity specifically in America is in large part due to diet, heavy in sugars and corn syrup, in response to the "low-fat" fad and corn subsidies respectively. That coupled with the love of cars and sprawl, society in America leads to obesity unless you are wealthy and have time to exercise and can afford food without processed sugars and corn syrup.

Therefore, fat is more or less a signifier of class, just as race is, and the bias against fat people is more or less just a manifestation in part of how much we demonize the poor in this country.

Rich fat people exist, and are demonized too. Obesity is a result of overeating, and can be avoided even if you're poor. Rice and frozen bags of rich veggies are cheap.

> as orientation and race one are born with

A friend who studied developmental psych told me scientists are still far from reaching an agreement about the causal factors of homosexuality, that there's actually growing evidence that homosexuality is actually more correlated with one's environment during early (first 3-5 years) childhood. But since how one develops in early childhood is just as binding as the expressions of your genes, you might as well say you're born with your orientation.

The weight one is really interesting. If we were to see a drop in the rates of overweight and obese people, I wonder if an increase in bias would be a precursor. Not in the sense that everyone hates them and they change their habits out of societal pressure, but even among that population, a negative bias toward obesity could be a shift toward a more healthy mindset.

There is already TONS of negative cultural bias towards being overweight/obese. The fact that there are still so many overweight/obese people shows that we really still don't understand the problem or how to treat it.

Goes hand in hand with mental illness (depression, anxiety, etc), which often leads to weight gain through food and alcohol/drug abuse. I'd like to see if bias has dropped for that.

Philosophy academics (the dreaded "post-modernists") have been saying how such biases are socially constructed for so long, that if the conditions in society change, people's perspectives will change. Looks like attitudes really are not so "natural" as people put them.

Also, bird migration patterns are changing, therefore they must also be socially constructed.

When you use "socially constructed" to mean "influenced in any way at all by society," it becomes meaningless. Its strong meaning, "entirely constructed by society with no natural basis at all," is a useful idea.

I don't know that any serious person has claimed that attitudes about weight and homosexuality are unchanging human universals. Historical literature shows a variety of attitudes to both. Societies around the world have a range of attitudes. A post-modernist who claims to have discovered this idea is being disingenuous.

Intetesting they didn’t look at sex-based discrimination.

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