Can Talking about "Electability" Accommodate Prejudice?

New research explains how we support other people's prejudices.

Posted Feb 25, 2020

Can you be non-prejudiced yet still make decisions that reinforce the prejudices of others? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer is yes. 

In an illuminating series of studies, Andrea Vial of Yale University has shown that people can support and reinforce discrimination and prejudice — even when they do not hold those prejudiced opinions and even when they are a member of the group that is discriminated against! In her latest studies, she has examined how this may be especially true when people are in roles that are not focused on creating equity and fairness. In particular, she found that when people were acting as a hiring manager, they were more likely to make hiring decisions that accommodated the prejudice of others.

In one early study, she used a scenario that could have come straight out of a Star Trek episode. This was done to strip away any preconceptions that people might have brought with them to the study. In this study, participants were asked to imagine that themselves as an "Eldan" and President of Planet One. Their task was to appoint either an "Eldan" or a "Taurgon" as the chief negotiator for peace talks between Planets Two and Three. Coming into the study, people couldn't have had existing prejudices for or against Eldans or Taurgons, because the two groups don't exist. The Eldan and Taurgon candidates were equally qualified, and you would expect equal preferences for each candidate. If anything, you might have expected a bias towards Eldans, since her participants were told that they were Eldans.

Despite all this, when participants learned that Planets Two and Three were prejudiced against Eldans, Taurgons were more likely to be hired as chief negotiators – they supported and reinforced the prejudice. Participants were concerned that Eldans would have interpersonal issues with Planets Two and Three and be less successful in negotiating a truce. In the world of science fiction, this reasoning and outcome might make sense and be rational (although I like to think Janeway could have found a less accommodating decision). If your job is to find the best person to negotiate a life-or-death deal, and you know that the warring groups hold certain biases, does it make the most sense to accommodate the feelings of the warring groups? Given the stakes, could you make a different decision?

To test this, Vial and her research partners gave participants more realistic scenarios with lower stakes to see if the same pattern of behavior would emerge. Across those studies, accommodating the prejudice of others still happened. People's hiring decisions were determined by their roles in the organization and their assigned goals. For example, when they imagined themselves as the Chief Strategy Officer responsible for maximizing company performance and they knew that co-workers were sexist, they chose a male candidate over a female one.  When they imagined themselves as the Chief Diversity Officer responsible for maximizing diversity, they did not accommodate those sexist attitudes and chose the female candidate. In other words, with equally qualified candidates, sexist co-workers determined who was hired. Moreover, men and women participants expressed the same preferences!  And, despite evidence that diverse workplaces and teams with women on them are more effective!

These studies brilliantly illustrate how unbiased, well-meaning people can create and sustain systematic and institutionalized prejudice. When people come into roles, they adopt the goals of those roles and will not only allow prejudice to exist, but support it.  This happens even when those goals are counter to their own self-interest, even when they are required to act against their own values, and especially when they think the stakes are high.

You can see echoes of this tendency towards accommodation in all places where people have gatekeeping roles. For example, voters in primaries may see themselves as gatekeepers. For Democratic voters, the increased urgency to win the 2020 election created by emotional appeals and extreme claims can create the feeling that stakes are extremely high and therefore increase role-based behavior.  It makes sense.  If primary voters are gatekeepers, and their goal is to select the most "electable" candidate, then they are more likely to accommodate potential biases of voters in the general election.

For the past year, the discussion among Democratic voters has been about which candidate is more electable.  "Electable" is defined many different ways, depending on who your favorite Democrat is.  Starting with a relatively diverse field, the Democrats debated whether the United States was "ready" for a woman president or a gay president or an Asian-American or a woman of Color. When we say someone is not "electable" because others aren't "ready" for a [fill in the blank] candidate, we are accommodating the biases held by others.  Not always, but most frequently, those biases exist because of who the candidates are, not what they believe. 

As the field narrows, the debate continues, with increasing attributions regarding what "other voters" want and will vote for.  Pundits, bloggers, and commenters do not talk about what they are ready for, but what a hypothetical voter in some other place is ready for (e.g. "the Midwest won't vote for a woman").  This may be a sign that people have taken on the role of gatekeeper, spokesperson, or even alarmist, and are willing to accommodate real or perceived prejudices of others.

As people advocate for their candidates (or against others) or make selection decisions in the workplace, it is important to understand when you might be accommodating the prejudices of others and creating institutionalizing bias.

References

Vial, A. C., Dovidio, J. F., & Brescoll, V. L. (2019). Channeling others' biases to meet role demands. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 82, 47-63.