The insidious nature of bias

Shankar Vedantam’s Washington Post column this week is The Color of Health Care: Diagnosing Bias in Doctors. He looks at a study on bias in treatment by doctors. The study showed that without being aware of it, doctors would identify heart attack symptoms in blacks more often than those in whites, but would prescribe medicine to treat it less frequently. That’s despite no conscious bias on the part of the doctors, as this comment shows:

Mahzarin Banaji, a co-author and Harvard psychologist who helped develop the Implicit Association Test used in this study, said the racial bias unearthed by the study is at odds with conventional views of bigotry — and perhaps more insidious. Rather than harboring deliberate ill will, she said, the physicians had apparently internalized racial stereotypes, and these attitudes subtly influenced their medical judgment without their even realizing it.

It would be interesting to see if some sort of educational effort could be made to reduce this kind of bias, in much the way that some people talk about inoculating religious believers from holding extreme views, like that God approves of suicide bombers.

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