Bias Versus Discrimination - Joe Abittan

Bias Versus Discrimination

In The Book of Why Judea Pearl writes about a distinction between bias and discrimination from Peter Bickel, a statistician  from UC Berkeley. Regarding sex bias and discrimination in the workplace, Bickel carefully distinguished between bias and discrimination in a way that I find interesting. Describing his distinction Pearl writes the following:
“He [Bickel] carefully distinguishes between two terms, that in common English, are often taken as synonyms: bias and discrimination. He defines bias as a pattern of association between a particular decision and a particular sex of applicant. Note the words pattern and association. They tell us that bias is a phenomenon on rung one of the Ladder of Causation.”
Bias, Pearl explains using Bickel’s quote, is simply an observation. There is no causal mechanism at play when dealing with bias and that is why he states that it is on rung one of the Ladder of Causation. It is simply recognizing that there is a disparity, a trend, or some sort of pattern or association between two things.
Pearl continues, “on the other hand, he defines discrimination as the exercise of decision influenced by the sex of the applicant when that is immaterial to the qualification for entry. Words like exercise of decision, or influence and immaterial are redolent of causation, even if Bickel could not bring himself to utter that word in 1975. Discrimination, unlike bias, belongs on rung two or three of the Ladder of Causation.”
Discrimination is an intentional act. There is a clear causal pathway that we can posit between the outcome we observe and the actions or behaviors of individuals. In the case that Bickel used, sex disparities in work can be directly attributed to discrimination if it can be proven that immaterial considerations were the basis for not hiring women (or maybe men) for specific work. Discrimination does not happen all on its own, it happens because of something else. Bias can exist on its own. It can be caused by discrimination, but it could be caused by larger structural factors that themselves are not actively making decisions to create a situation. Biases are results, patterns, and associations we can observe. Discrimination is deliberate behavior that generates, sustains, and reinforces biases.
Conscious and Unconscious Priming Effects

Conscious and Unconscious Priming Effects

“Another major advance in our understanding of memory was the discovery that priming is not restricted to concepts and words,” writes Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, “You cannot know this from conscious experience, of course, but you must accept the alien idea that your actions and your emotions can be primed by events of which you are not even aware.”

 

Yesterday I wrote about linguistic priming. How words can trigger thoughts in our mind, and set us up to think certain thoughts. I wrote about how ideas spread, like in the movie Inception from one thought or idea to another based on similarities and categories of things. I wrote about how important implicit associations can be, and how we have used them to measure racial bias and the harm that these biases could have in society. Today’s post continues on that trend, exploring the areas in our lives where priming may be taking place without our knowledge.

 

In his book, before the quote I shared at the start of this post, Kahneman describes our thoughts as behaving like ripples on a pond. A train of thought can be primed in one direction, and ripples from that priming can spread out across our mind. So when I used Inception earlier, I may have primed our minds to think about trains, since they feature so prominently in the movie, and if that is the case, it is no surprise that I used train of thought just a few sentences later. From this point forward, there are likely other metaphors and examples that I might use that are potentially primed by the movie Inception or by associations with trains. It is clear that I’m following priming effects if I directly reference my thinking staying on track or going off the rails, but it might be less obvious and clear how my thinking might relate to trains in the sentences to come, but as Kahneman’s quote suggested, my mind might be unconsciously primed for certain directions all from the casual mention of Inception from earlier.

 

Across my writing I have always been fascinated by the idea that we are not in as much control over our minds as we believe. Thoughts think themselves, we don’t necessarily think our own thoughts. Our minds can be influenced by time, by caffeine levels, by whether someone smiled at us on our commute to work, or whether our sock is rubbing on our foot in a strange way. We don’t have to think of anything for it to directly register with our brain and influence where our mind goes. What thoughts pop into our head, and what ripples of ideas are primed across our mind are beyond our control and influenced by things we sometimes barely notice. Priming, according to Kahneman, can be direct, deliberate, and conscious, or it can be unconscious and oblique. The mind and how we think is more random and unpredictable than it feels, and sometimes more random than we would like to believe. This should change how we think of ourselves, how we think of others, and what information and knowledge we privilege and encourage. It should make us less certain that we are always behaving as we should, and less certain that we are as smart and savvy in all situations as we like to believe we are.
Solving for Productivity

Solving For Productivity

My general sense, from working at a health-tech start-up to my time in government, is that we under-invest in how to be productive. I recognize that everyone will have different preferences, different abilities, and different thinking styles, but I have seen plenty of areas in which we could improve the how and when of our schedules to make ourselves more productive. We can level this up from individual level decision making around productivity into group levels of productivity to really improve our organizations.

 

In the start-up world I saw individuals who were incredibly productive, but who also seemed to work for 12 or more hours every day. This is impressive, but not very sustainable and not something that could scale. In government I have seen people face mountains of work, but fail to prioritize and schedule appropriately to focus their work. Both examples highlight the importance of how we approach our productivity and why we should have more discussions about planning, schedule design, and deep work if we are going to improve our productivity as individuals and organizations.

 

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport addresses these issues directly. He shares a story about a business school professor named Adam Grant, who produces a prodigious amount of work in terms of New York Time’s best selling books, academic journal articles, and award winning courses at his University. Newport met Grant who shared with him a PowerPoint outlining strategies for academics to become highly productivity and effective. As Newport states it, Grant, and the professors who developed the PowerPoint, “See productivity as a scientific problem to systematically solve.”

 

This is the exact opposite of the productivity strategies I have seen in my two careers. The commendable start-uppers burning the midnight oil seemed to mostly just throw themselves at every project until they were spread too thin and slowed down other operations. Conversely, many of the people I have seen in government simply give in, arguing that there is too much work and not enough manpower to manage it all. Neither see their effectiveness and productivity in a scientific sense, adding variables and completing formulas to find their maximum (sustainable) productivity.

 

Newport encourages us to think about how we do our work and what work we prioritize. His suggestions also seem to be in line with recommendations from Dan Pink’s book When. From Grant, Newport learned, “batching of hard, but important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches.” This can take place at “multiple levels” according to Newport who demonstrates how an academic can batch teaching into one semester and research into another semester. In our own lives, we can batch important analytical work into our productive and focused mornings, and we can save emails and rote paperwork for our afternoon struggle-bus hour.

 

We might be tempted by Newport’s advice to just double down on our hard work and extend our working hours. But this is not the best strategy for the best performance. Newport explains a lesson he learned while researching his book How to Become a Straight-A Student, “The best students understood the role intensity plays in productivity and therefore went out of their way to maximize their concentration – radically reducing the time required to prepare for tests or write papers, without diminishing the quality of their results.”

 

If we see a mountain of work and shrink from it, or if we see a mountain of work and blindly throw ourselves at it, our end result is not going to be the best possible outcome. What we need to do is think about how we can be the most productive in tackling the task in front of us. We need to think strategically and scientifically about our approach, batching the complex focus work into periods of productivity, and saving the less important work for the time when our brains have maxed out on their focus ability. This is something that leaders of all organizations should be encouraging and teaching to those they lead, otherwise they hold onto the secrets of good work, and allow those who work with them to flounder about in front of the challenges of work in the 21st century. By adding a little more time to planning and thinking strategically for how we work, we can make adjustments to kickstart our productivity. By giving ourselves realistic challenges and knowing when to say no, we can ensure that all of our work is the best we could possibly produce.

Deliberate Growth

In his book, The Obstacle is the Way, author Ryan Holiday discusses the ways in which we often look at our selves, our abilities, and the situations in which we find ourselves.  We tend to think that who we are is set in stone and shaped by forces beyond our control: I am naturally good at writing, I was not born with a good singing voice, I like to go to the gym, I don’t know how to do computer programming. In some way with all the examples above, we are looking at the things we do and do not do as if they are given parts of life, and not conscious choices that we make. When we look at who we are, what we excel at, where we struggle, what we like to do, and what things are not part of who we are, we begin to narrow our lives and place ourselves in a box. We define ourselves not by our ability to grow and change, but rather by who or what we perceive ourselves to be during a point in time. Holiday challenges this thinking, “We craft our spiritual strength through physical exercise, and our physical hardiness through mental practice (mens sana in corpore sano — sound mind in a strong body).”

 

His quote on its own speaks to the importance of mental and physical fortitude, but the section in which he includes the quote speaks to more than just the idea of mental and physical strength. The focus of Holiday in the quote above is on the word craft. We do not simply have mental strength by chance, and we do not simply have physical strength without working out. As Holiday explains, we must put in the effort, work, and focus to build our lives to match the quote above, to have a sound mind in a sound body.

 

Deliberate action and focus are the only things that will lead us to the growth we wish to see. We will have to put in real effort and work to develop the person we want to be, and if we do not strive to improve ourselves, we will only atrophy, and wither away as a result of the limitations we accept. Holiday continues, “Nobody is born with a steel backbone. We have to forge that ourselves.” Looking at the qualities we want to develop, and preparing ourselves for the challenging road to acquire those qualities is a must if we want to find growth. From Holiday’s perspective, self-reflection and awareness are key, as a greater understanding of self and vision for growth will build and shape who we are and the actions we take, opening opportunity and improving experiences.

 

Holiday’s advice in forging ahead on our path is similar to the advice of Richard Wiseman, who wrote in his book 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot, encouraged journaling and reflection on the challenges we expect to face along our journey. By explaining how we will plan for obstacles in life, we can develop our sound mind, propelling us beyond our challenges. Thinking ahead and reflecting on not just our success but our failures and difficulties can help us build the strength necessary to develop our steel backbone.