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See Inside February/March 2009

Decision Making Suffers from Unconscious Prejudices

Study reveals how much people sacrifice to satisfy their biases

When making complex decisions, legitimate factors sometimes mask choices influenced by prejudice—so bias is hard to detect. Recent research untangled some of these complex scenarios revealing that people are willing to sacrifice quite a lot to fulfill their subconscious biases. Psychologists asked volunteers to imagine they and a partner would compete together in a trivia quiz. Participants viewed profiles of two potential partners that described each person’s education, IQ and previous trivia game experience. A photograph of either a thin or an overweight person was attached to each profile. Subjects indicated which of the two potential partners they would prefer, then judged 23 more such pairings, each with a new mix of attributes.

Teasing out which variables affected people’s choices, the researchers found that participants were willing to sacrifice 12 IQ points in a trivia partner to have one who was thin. In a similar experiment, the group found that when comparing successive pairs of job offers, study subjects were willing to take a 22 percent salary cut to have a male boss.

“There’s a price to pay for biases that we may not even be aware of,” says lead author Eugene Caruso of the University of Chicago. “If you take a lower salary in order to have a male boss or you choose a partner who has a lower IQ but is thin, the person you’re discriminating against is yourself.”

Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "Bias Doesn't Pay".

This article was originally published with the title "Bias Doesn't Pay."

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