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Blinded by Bias

It has long been assumed that when you give people greater reward for better performance, then their performance increases even more, benefiting everyone.  But according to a study conducted at Indiana University it turns out that there are hidden biases in meritocratic systems.  In this study, participants who were told to give bonuses to better performers gave $46 dollars more to men, than to equally well-performing women!  In contrast, systems which emphasized across the board fairness gave bonuses with relative equity.

Participants in the study were 400 MBA students with substantial career experience.  Women participating in the study were just as likely to give men higher bonuses as men were.  The researchers theorize that when an organization upholds merit as the highest value, people tasked with making these decisions relax their vigilance about conscious or subconscious bias, because they believe they are making these decisions on “objective” criteria. 

It would be easy to go off on a soliloquy about the enduring bias in our culture about rewarding women, but I will save that for a different moment.

For the time being, I want to relate this to my last post about how often we believe we are employing “reason” when in fact we are acting instinctively on behalf of our internal biased assumptions.  This is absolutely human and natural.  Our assumptions are the interpretive shorthand that allows us to exist in the world without having to process absolutely everything that happens around us and within us.

But these assumptions bred of experience also get in the way of connecting with others, especially those that have significantly different experiences than ourselves.  So we naturally tend to surround ourselves with people who we believe have had similar experiences, and similar interpretations of their experience. And then miss the ways in which our biases overtake our reason.

It takes conscious work to overcome these biases.  First of all we need to learn how to recognize them in ourselves, and then the even harder work comes when we try to learn how to transcend our own perspectives.  Robert Kegan does some fascinating work on this kind of psychological development. (A really geeky description of it can be found in EnightenNext  magazine.

For me this is really just one long argument for how we need to find ways to be in conversation and community with others of different mindsets, different worldviews, even different values.  A challenging order in today’s polarized world.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. The results of that study may reveal nothing more than flawed methodology. In a true meritocracy, pay and/or bonuses are determined by formula; ie, production numbers, percentages, or some such. As soon as you introduce “manager’s judgement”, you introduce favoritism of one kind or another. I find Lookism as prevalent as race and gender, as well as weight based discrimination.

    June 6, 2012

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