Racial Bias Manifests When We Are Tired

Whether we want to admit it or not, we all make cognitive errors that result in biases, incorrect assessments, and bad decisions. Daniel Pink examines the timing of our errors and biases in his book When: The Scientific Secrets to Perfect Timing. It is one thing to simply say that biases exist, and another to try to understand what leads to biases and when such biases are most likely to manifest. It turns out that the time of day has a big impact on when we are likely to see biases in our thinking and actions.

 

Regarding a research study where participants were asked to judge a criminal defendant, Pink writes, “All of the jurors read the same set of facts. But for half of them, the defendants’s name was Robert Garner, and for the other half, it was Roberto Garcia. When people made their decisions in the morning, there was no difference in guilty verdicts between the two defendants. However, when they rendered their verdicts later in the day, they were much more likely to believe that Garcia was guilty and Garner was innocent.”

 

Pink argues that when we are tired, when we have had to make many decisions throughout the day, and when we have become exhausted from high cognitive loads, we slow down with our decision-making process and are less able to think rationally. We use short-cuts in our decisions which can lead to cognitive errors. The case above shows how racial biases or prejudices may slip in when our brains are depleted.

 

None of us like to think of ourselves as impulsive or biased. And perhaps in the morning, after our first cup of coffee and before the stress of the day has gotten to us, we really are the aspirational versions of ourselves who we see as fair, honest, and patient. But the afternoon version of ourselves, the one who yells at other drivers in 5 p.m. traffic, is much less patient, more biased, and less capable of rational thought.

 

The idea of implicit biases, or prejudices that we don’t recognize that we hold, is controversial. None of us want to believe that we could make such terrible mistakes in thinking and treat two people so differently simply because a name sounds foreign. The study Pink mentions is a good way to approach this topic and show that we are at the whim of our tired brains, and to demonstrate that we can, in a sense, have two selves. Our rational and patient post-coffee self is able to make better decisions than our afternoon I-just-want-to-get-home-from-work selves. We are not the evil that manifests through our biases, but rather our biases are a manifestation that results from poor decision-making situations and mental fatigue. This is a lighter way to demonstrate the power and hidden dangers of our cognitive biases, and the importance of having people make crucial decisions at appropriate times. It is important to be honest about these biases so that we can look at the structures, systems, and institutions that shape our lives so that we can create a society that works better for all of us, regardless of what time of day it is.

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