Sunday, August 02, 2009

A Little Bias Goes a Long Way by Louis Evan Palmer

We've all seen charts and articles on the miracle of compound interest. That's where a small amount of interest on your principal accumulates over time into a fair bit of cash.

Well, that same principle works in a host of social situations both in favour of a given group or against them. That is not suprising and most people would state that they already know this, but what is surprising is how small that bias can be and still effect significant change over time.

In the book "Gender, Nature and Nurture" by Richard A. Lippa, a study is examined where a computer simulation was defined and run to measure the effect of a small bias (0.2) in favour of men over a 20 year period. From 50-50 at all job levels at the start of the simulation, after 20 years we see 53% of the lowest level workers are female and only 35% of the highest level workers. A slightly larger bias (0.45) yields 58% of the lowest level workers and 29% of the highest level workers being women.

We can quibble about the simulation parameters and modeling but if anything, a more accurate version would likely make the discrepancies larger.

In real-life, this translates into skewed decisions, favouritism and disadvantage. Advantaged groups, however defined, can incrementally assume control of functions within an organization, society and country. On the other hand, disadvantage can be institutionalized at a level where it's automatic and unnoticed. However, at a certain point, cries of superiority or oppression will be heard. How often, we see ourselves making claims, and asserting rights and privileges based on those claims, when in fact, what we're claiming is not rooted in our worthiness but a small monotonous systemic bias. As for the disadvantaged, hard work and talent seem to be the only credible ticket for the masses but a break-through success and model (like Obama) would help to open things up in a more dramatic fashion.

A Little Bias Goes a Long Way, Louis Evan Palmer, The Way It Can Be,
Copyright 2009 Louis Evan Palmer lives in Ontario Canada. His short stories have appeared in numerous publications.


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