By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
You join a research study, and after being randomly assigned to one of two groups, you hear a message focused on how common stereotypes are (the other group hears instead how rare stereotypes are). Then you, along with the other group, are asked to rate women and men in general on a number of traits, including the question of how "career-oriented" and how "family-oriented" men and women are. So, armed with your knowledge of how common these stereotypes are, would you be more or less likely to believe in them? The answer according to the study (Duguid & Thomas-Hunt, 2014) is "more." Hearing about how common and normal these biases are has the boomerang effect of increasing the bias. Even when the research participants are told to "try to avoid thinking about others in such a manner," the stereotype gets stronger based on knowledge of its commonality.
We expect awareness to be a cure, but so much for "sunlight being the best disinfectant." Awareness just might backfire. The study, along with several others, is discussed in a current article in The New York Times' by Wharton professor Adam Grant and Facebook CEO and LeanIn founder Sheryl Sandberg, the first in a four-part series on women at work. The discussion has obvious relevance to litigation. When it comes to a verdict, we don't want to be doing anything that would enhance biases against us. But the findings give rise to a dilemma when it comes to voir dire. Making a bias seem normal makes it easier for potential jurors to reveal their biases, and we want that. But knowing that voir dire removes the worst but does not remove all, the research raises an important question: If voir dire discussion tells the eventual juror that these biases are common, then is there a chance that the bias is becoming even more entrenched? This post takes a look at the research, the voir dire dilemma, and a suggested fix.