Are More Educated People Less Biased?

To address this question, we first need to answer: Where do (social) biases come from? — which leads us into the fascinating topic of stereotypes. Stereotypes are cognitive associations between a group and a trait (or set of traits) – e.g., women and nurturing, men and leadership skills, African American males and aggression, etc. After frequent (and sometimes subtle) exposures from our social environments, these mental associations form automatically, even in the absence of conscious antipathies toward groups – see also Bargh 1999; Devine 1989; Gaertner & Dovidio 1986; Greenwald & Krieger 2006; Jost et al 2009.

What’s important here is our awareness of these associations that exist in our culture. It does not really matter that John has a Master’s degree or has traveled around the world. John could be the most knowledgeable person with the deepest egalitarian, non-essentialist beliefs – but what matters here is that John is also aware that most other people aren’t like him; that many others out there still believe that black men are more aggressive and more sexual or that women are more dependent, nurturing, and communal. Stereotypes operate implicitly (also here and here), regardless of our own race/gender, and even when our personal beliefs are completely to the contrary. In fact, many theorists have argued that implicit biases persist and are powerful determinants of behavior precisely because people lack personal awareness of them – meaning that they can occur despite conscious non-prejudiced attitudes and intentions.

So, to recap, it’s not primarily about education or knowledge, but perhaps a bit of the opposite: You would have to have lived under a rock all your life to claim true ignorance of the shared beliefs that exist in our society and that these beliefs don’t affect you in any way. At the risk of belaboring the point, let me also summarize three classic studies that explore the behavior of highly educated decision makers:

  • In an audit study of employer hiring behavior, researchers Bertrand and Mullainathan (2003) sent out identical resumes to real employers, varying only the perceived race of the applicants by using names typically associated with African Americans or whites. The study found that the “white” applicants were called back approximately 50 percent more often than the identically qualified “black” applicants. The researchers found that employers who identified as “Equal Opportunity Employer” discriminated just as much as other employers.
  • Steinpreis and colleagues (1999) examined whether university faculty would be influenced by the gender of the name on a CV when determining hireability and tenurability. Identical, fictitious CVs were submitted to real academics, varying only the gender of the applicants. Male and female faculty were significantly more likely to hire a potential male colleague than an equally qualified potential female colleague. In addition, they were more likely to positively evaluate the research, teaching, and service contributions of “male” job applicants than of “female” job applicants with the identical record. Faculty were four times as likely to write down cautionary comments when reviewing the CV of female candidates – comments included notes such as “we would have to see her job-talk”, or “I would have to see evidence that she had gotten these grants and publications on her own.”
  • Finally, Trix and Psenka (2003) examined over 300 letters of recommendation for successful candidates for medical school faculty positions. Letters written for female applicants differed systematically from those written for male applicants. Letters for women were shorter, had more references to their personal lives and had more hedges, faint praise, and irrelevancies (e.g., “It’s amazing how much she’s accomplished.”, “She is close to my wife.”).