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Hang around in social justice circles for long enough, and you’ll be made aware of the “long tail” of discrimination.

An illustration of the long tail, using x^(-2) as an illustration.Blatant discrimination can carry a high cost, in terms of social stigma or even lawsuits. But what if it’s less blatant? If some discrimination is less likely to be caught or tougher to interpret, it’ll carry a lower cost and be more likely to persist than blatant discrimination. We can slide that scale right into the realm of unconscious bias: if you’re not conscious of your discrimination, then from your point of view it doesn’t exist.

But it does, and it carries consequences.

Researchers at the University of Virginia quizzed white medical students and residents to see how many believed inaccurate and at times “fantastical” differences about the two races — for example, that blacks have less sensitive nerve endings than whites or that black people’s blood coagulates more quickly. They found that fully half thought at least one of the false statements presented was possibly, probably or definitely true.

Moreover, those who held false beliefs often rated black patients’ pain as lower than that of white patients and made less appropriate recommendations about how they should be treated.

The study itself is worth a read, if only for this interesting tidbit:

The simple slope analyses indicated that participants who endorsed more false beliefs (+1SD) rated the black target as feeling less pain than the white target [β = 0.45, SE = 0.20, t(211) = 2.24, P = 0.026]. Conversely, participants who endorsed fewer false beliefs (−1 SD) rated the black target as feeling more pain than the white target [β = −0.48, SE = 0.20, t(211) = −2.34, P = 0.020]. In other words, as in study 1 [which surveyed the general public], participants in study 2 [which surveyed medical students] who endorsed false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites exhibited a racial bias in pain perception similar to the bias shown in previous work (11–17). Unexpectedly, participants who did not endorse such beliefs exhibited a bias in the opposite direction.[2]

If you’re worried about unconscious discrimination, it’s very easy to overcompensate. The solution isn’t to stop compensating, it’s to better quantify your unconscious behavior and make it conscious. To be aware of how you can be biased and look for the evidence of it, and not just accept that you are. To put time and effort into studying and scrubbing your biases, because in some cases they will materially harm other people.


[1] Hoffman, Kelly M., et al. “Racial bias in pain assessment and treatment recommendations, and false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2016): 201516047.

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