Category Archives: Business

Hidden Brain Puzzle # 39: Power Increases Risk of Infidelity Among Both Men and Women

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The seemingly endless stream of sex scandals by powerful politicians in the United States raises a question: Does this say something about men, or does it say something about power?

New research suggests that power, not being a guy, is the corrupting factor. Powerful people tend to see themselves as more attractive than they really are and, more importantly, tend to believe that others see them as more attractive than others really do. Power also seems to change how people think about risk — power gets people to focus on potential rewards and ignore the potential downside. Add it all up and you get a far higher propensity for infidelity among both powerful men and powerful women.

In the latest Hidden Brain Puzzle, posted as always on the Facebook page, I asked:

Hidden Brain Puzzle # 39: Having power increases the odds that

A) Both men and women engage in infidelity
B) Men engage in infidelity
C) Women engage in infidelity
D) Neither men nor women engage in infidelity

The correct answer is A. For a fuller explanation, listen to this piece I just did — my first for NPR.

Hidden Brain Puzzle # 39: Having power increases the odds that
A) Both men and women engage in infidelity
B) Men engage in infidelity
C) Women engage in infidelity
D) Neither men nor women engage in infidelity

Hidden Brain Puzzle # 37: Corruption tied to "collective responsibility" ethic

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Corruption is more likely in countries where people have a “collective responsibility” ethic as opposed to an individualistic ethic, according to new research.

Poverty matters too — poor countries are likely to see more corruption than rich countries — but this squares with common sense. I can more easily imagine a cop in a poor country taking a bribe (when he may have had to pay a bribe to get his job in the first place) than in a country where cops make a living wage.

The new research looked at both correlational and causational evidence. Countries where business executives expressed greater levels of pride in collective enterprises — workplaces, communities, family etc — were also countries where more corruption is documented.

In an interesting laboratory experiment, researchers Nina Mazar and Pankaj Aggarwal at the University of Toronto found that volunteers who were unconsciously primed to prize collective responsibility as opposed to individual responsibility were more likely to say they would offer a bribe to win a contract that would provide them with a lucrative commission. These volunteers felt less accountable for their corruption.

In a puzzle posted on The Hidden Brain’s facebook page, I asked:

Bribery is more likely in countries where
A) Individualism is prized (we’re all on our own)
B) Shared responsibility is prized (we’re in this together)
C) Individualism and shared responsibility are both prized
D) None of the above

The correct answer is B.

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Hidden Brain Puzzle # 31: Tragedy Increases Cooperation and Prosocial Behavior

By | Blog, Business, Cool Findings, Diversity, Evolution, Group Behavior, Morality, Puzzle | No Comments Tragedy tends to bring out the best in people, according to new research into cooperative behavior. The more people are affected by tragedy, the more they cooperate and engage in “prosocial” behavior.

In a study of 2,447 residents in five provinces at the epicenter of a 2008 earthquake in China, researchers found that residents who were hardest hit were more generous with their help than people who were slightly affected or not affected at all. The study, published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, was co-authored by Li-Lin Rao, Ru Han, Xiao-Peng Ren, Xin-Wen Bai, Rui Zheng, Huan Liu, Zuo-Jun Wang, Jin-Zhen Li, Kan Zhang and Shu Li.

In a puzzle posted on The Hidden Brain’s Facebook fan page, where all puzzles get posted first, I asked:

After a natural disaster, the people most likely to behave in prosocial (cooperative) ways are
A) Those worst affected
B) Those least affected
C) Those in the middle

The correct answer is A.

The researchers wrote, “residents in more devastated areas demonstrated more prosocial behavior, but the degree of prosocial behavior declined with the passage of time. These findings suggest that prosocial behavior can be induced in individuals by being at a disadvantage. Indirect evidence for our claim includes the fact that commitment works best under harsh conditions: the more individuals are challenged by nature to survive, the more compelled they are to cooperate with each other in durable relationships.”

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Hidden Brain Puzzle # 28: Attractiveness Works Against Subordinates When Managers are Unattractive

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A variety of research studies show that attractiveness helps people in a variety of professional settings. Defendents in the criminal justice system and children in daycare get away with more lenient punishments when they are attractive, compared to when they are not.

But new research shows that there is a downside to being attractive — when people evaluating you are peers, but are not attractive themselves. Subordinates who are attractive are penalized by managers who are unattractive, according to new research by Maria Agthe, Matthias Spörrle and Jon K. Maner.

In many ways, the research confirms an intuition most of us have — while attractive people are, well, attractive, our hidden brain can also perceive them as potential threats. Interestingly, the bias was only observed among same-sex participants — meaning unattractive male managers discriminated against attractive male subordinates and unattractive female managers discriminated against attractive female subordinates.

A recent puzzle I posted on the Hidden Brain’s Facebook fan page (where all puzzles get aired first) read:

When a manager evaluates a subordinate belonging to the same sex, the manager is most likely to give a negative review when
A) The manager is attractive and the subordinate is not
B) The subordinate is attractive and the manager is not
C) Both the manager and subordinate are attractive
D) Neither the manager nor the subordinate are attractive

The correct answer is B.

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Hidden Brain Puzzle # 28: Attractiveness Works Against Subordinates When Managers are Unattractive

HIDDEN BRAIN PUZZLE (AND ANSWER): Sexism in the Workplace — Some Paradoxical Evidence

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You are a woman worried about sexism who has applied for a job. When you enter your interviewer’s office, you see (a) an office with newspapers, stationery & dictionaries (b) an office with Playboy posters, motorcycle mags & hunting awards (c) an office with rainbow flags and plaques about diversity. Which prospective interviewer is likely to elicit the WORST interview performance from you and why?

The obvious answer, of course, is B. Equally obviously, of course, there is a catch. It turns out that the correct answer is A. It’s the office that contains no clues about the prospective interviewer’s views about gender/sexism/diversity etc that poses the greatest threat to the self-confidence of our prospective interviewee. Remember the puzzle said this was an interviewee who was concerned about sexism. It turns out that ambiguous information (or no information) creates more of a concern to people worried about something (as they spend time trying to figure out who they are dealing with) than a person with explicitly threatening views.

I constructed this puzzle from an experiment conducted last year by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, Lindsay Shaw-Taylor, Serena Chen and Eunice Chang. The researchers asked female volunteers who were worried about sexism to take a test, and provided them with information ahead of time about the office of the person who would be evaluating them. The offices were broadly similar to what I described in the puzzle. The women given the ambiguous information performed much worse on the test than women given more explicit cues that their evaluator was likely to hold sexist views. The researchers published their work in a paper called “Ironic effects of explicit gender prejudice on women’s test performance” in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

The wrong lesson to draw from this experiment is that interviewers should display Playboy pinups in their offices ahead of interviews with female job candidates. The right lesson to draw is that if you want people to perform at their best — and managers, companies and institutions pay a clear price when talented job-seekers underperform during interviews — you have to make it explicit that you don’t count yourself among the knuckleheads.

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Fighting unconscious bias: Reframing threats as challenges

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One of the more pernicious dimensions of the hidden brain is the way in which it prompts many people to fulfill self-defeating stereotypes about their groups. If you tell a classroom of students that men tend to outperform women in math tests — right before you administer a math test — the women in the class are likely to perform more poorly on the math test than they would if you had not said anything. You don’t even have to remind people explicitly about the stereotype: Merely drawing attention to whether students are male or female before administering a math test can impair the ability of women to do their best.

You can show the same phenomenon in a variety of domains — you threaten the ability of white men to play basketball by telling them that on average blacks are better at basketball than whites (or just by making race salient in their minds before they compete in a basketball game.) It matters little whether the stereotypes are “accurate” or not — just that they are widely shared. The phenomenon is sometimes called “stereotype threat” — a clunky phrase, in my opinion, that does not do justice to this pernicious form of prejudice.

New research by the talented Adam Alter at New York University (whom I cite in The Hidden Brain for other research) and his colleagues suggests there may be a clever way to disable stereotype threats among high school and college students. If threats can be rephrased as challenges, Alter and his colleagues found, they no longer impair the ability of people to perform their best. The research was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

 When experimenters told black students between the ages of 9 and 13 that a standardized math test they were about to take would reveal how good they were at solving math problems, the performance of the students dropped compared to when they were told that the test would help them learn new things, or that “working on these problems might be a big help in school because it sharpens the mind.”

Alter and his colleagues found a similar phenomenon when it came to college students at Princeton University.

One way to think about these interventions is to think about how they changed what the students were paying attention to. Threats draw attention to our flaws, weaknesses and inadequacies. Challenges, on the other hand, remind us about our potential. It’s a useful lesson for educators to keep in mind.

The Diane Rehm Show featured The Hidden Brain — Disasters, the Criminal Justice System, and naked Visigoths

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Listen to an interview about The Hidden Brain conducted by the Diane Rehm show. The show was guest-hosted by the immensely talented Susan Page of USA Today, and featured a discussion that ranged from how to reform our criminal justice system to same-sex attraction among Visigoths. Sorry, I can’t say more. You’ll just have to listen to it.

Fighting Bias in Negotiations

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I gave a talk yesterday about The Hidden Brain at the John F Kennedy School
of Government at Harvard University. My comments centered on The Invisible
Current chapter in my book, which deals with the issue of sexism — how to
identify it, how to measure it, and what we can do about it.

As often happens at these sessions, someone asked what we can do about such
bias. I gave one very specific example drawn from the research into sexism
that shows that men and women tend to negotiate differently based on
whether they are negotiating with a man or a woman. Without anyone’s
conscious awareness, male evaluators tend to be biased against women who
negotiate — for a higher salary, for example. Male evaluators don’t
necessarily like men who bargain for more, but they consider it more
acceptable (in their unconscious minds) for men to negotiate than for women
to do so. By contrast, female evaluators tend not to like negotiators in
general, but they are not biased against women — they feel unfavorably
toward both men and women who ask for more. This research might help
explain observational data that show women are less likely than men to
negotiate in a variety of experimental and real-life settings (especially
when they are negotiating with men). Without their conscious awareness, in
other words, women may be picking up signals that negotiating could hurt

Negotiating is a potentially unpleasant business, and it is natural that
managers prefer candidates/employees/subordinates who do not bargain.
Nonetheless, negotiating can carry substantial rewards — if
two people are offered a starting salary of $25,000 and one of them
negotiates that up to $30,000 and both people get 3 percent raises for the
next 28 years — the better negotiator will earn $361,000 more over the
course of his/her career.

The goal should not be that managers welcome all negotiators, but that managers
offer equal treatment to both men and women who negotiate. Might we have
fairer results (and potentially increase the number of women willing to
negotiate) if more women were placed more in charge of negotiation
procedures, decisions and outcomes?

You can watch a short video introduction to The Invisible Current here.

Literary Success and Sexism

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An interesting oped today in The Washington Post explores the effects of sexism in literature. Julianna Baggott offers provocative evidence that men are far more likely than women to achieve literary success, for equivalent efforts. I was especially taken with the research she cites that shows when volunteers think a play is written by a man, they rate is as superior to the very same play — when the volunteers think it has been written by a woman.

The power of this experiment lies in the fact that it is perfectly controlled: If you were to compare a play actually written by a man to a play actually written by a woman, the plays themselves are different, so we don’t have a good way of telling whether the judgment of volunteers is being driven by sexism or the literary merits of the two plays. In the experiment Baggott describes, the play remains the same, so the only thing that can plausibly explain the difference in the perceptions of volunteers has to be the one thing that was changed – the sex of the playwright.

I delve into the research on sexism in a chapter of The Hidden Brain, where I try to grapple with the problem that in real life, we almost never have effective controls. Baggott cites research that shows, on aggregate, men are far more likely to achieve literary success than women, and I believe this is evidence that sexism is at work. But that insight is not helpful when it comes to individual books, plays, authors and readers, because there are always idiosyncratic factors at play in every individual situation. Can one reader’s positive judgment of a book stem from the fact that he or she happens to like the theme being written about? Sure. Can a particular book’s failure stem from the fact that it is, in fact, a lousy book? Of course. Might an individual writer’s stellar reviews arise from the fact that that he or she is in fact a stellar writer? Obviously. The individual writer who gets passed over by critics and the marketplace is left with more questions than answers.

In the chapter called The Invisible Current, I show how, in at least in some situations, men and women can become their own control groups. If you believe we live in a post-sexist world, the evidence will surprise you.

Welcome and Introduction

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Welcome to! In the weeks and months to come, I am hoping to start conversations about the effects of unconscious bias in everyday life. Some of these conversations may touch on the book I have coming out in January, 2010, but I am hoping this blog will be about the larger issue of bias — how we can spot it, how we can measure its effects, and what we can do about it. I hope to throw a spotlight on interesting research I’ve seen, and draw connections between topical events and the voluminous experimental research into the effects of unconscious bias in daily life.

I hope you’ll join me in talking about the effects of bias in politics, the law, healthcare, the economy, international policy, and everyday life.