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biased judgement

Spent part of my lazy Sunday afternoon taking tests from Project Implicit, because I am a dork. Here are the findings so far:

  • Your data suggest little to no automatic preference between Fat People and Thin People.

  • Your data suggest a slight automatic preference for Straight People compared to Gay People.

  • Religious preference, from most to least preferred: Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism, Islam

  • Your data suggest a slight automatic preference for Light Skin compared to Dark Skin.

  • Your data suggest a moderate association of Male with Science and Female with Liberal Arts compared to Female with Science and Male with Liberal Arts.

  • Your data suggest a moderate automatic preference for Young compared to Old.

  • Your data suggest a slight association of Black Americans with Weapons compared to White Americans.

  • Your data suggest little or no association between Female and Male with Career and Family.

Not exactly what I expected, and not exactly what I wanted. What do you mean I have a slight preference for straight people over gay people, I am not straight myself! I have two X chromosomes and a Scala compiler, how can I still sub-consciously associate men with science and women with the humanities? I don't want to be the kind of person that prefers light skin to dark or associates Black people with weapons.

But, there it is all the same.

Does this mean that my revealed preference for the young versus the old will now drive me to hang around retirement homes and beat up the elderly? Of course not. Do I consciously believe that the sciences are inherently masculine and the liberal arts inherently feminine? No. Even so, I remain a product of my culture and upbringing, absorbing messages and developing internal heuristics that I do not necessarily consciously agree with and may indeed be actively working against.

So, what is to be done about it? Our unconscious biases don't make us bad people— the brain is built to formulate patterns and take short-cuts— but we are also not bound to them. I often hear advice to "trust your gut" and "don't over-think things". But what if your gut is a racist, sexist jerk? I'm going to suggest that maybe this advice should actually be considered harmful, at least in cases where sub-conscious judgements can lead to tangibly inequitable outcomes.

Actively trying to be "more meritocratic" sounds like a good idea but might be counterproductive in practice— with respect to the professional world, at least, I found some research indicating that the organizations that actively pride themselves in being meritocratic actually do worse at this than those that don't. Maybe we are better off taking steps to disable the biases, as with blind orchestra auditions, or to reduce them via dialog or exposure to counter-examples... and no matter what, we can at least recognize that they exist and get them out in the open.

the medium is the message

I recall being taught, over the years, that readers have very limited tolerance for "vertical scroll"— i.e., if you want something to get noticed or read, make sure it appears above the fold or before the bottom of the screen, otherwise people will get bored/distracted/impatient and move on without seeing it.

Today, looking at various corporate product pages, I see a layout trend that amounts to


(one line marketing slogan)


(another one or two lines of slogans)

A Nicely Centered Collection of Infographics
(maybe with some descriptive text)

Hey, maybe we should put some links to material about what the product actually does. Let's do that all the way down here.

Oh, and people might want to sign up for the service or get more information from us. Here is a button for that.

How About A Few More Infographics or Fancy Customer Logos?

(Oops, almost forgot the copyright and legalese)

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November 2014


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