Remember me? Gender, race may make you forgettable

April 9, 2023

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Remember me? Gender, race may make you forgettable

We often tend to forget what people look like and to confuse one person with another. This led a team of researchers to investigate systemic biases in the way we remember people, since this could influence social networks important to career advancement.

In new research focused on academia, the researchers found that being a woman or racial minority can help someone stand out and be remembered when few others look like them. But they are more likely to be confused in settings where others share the same attributes.

What the researchers say: “Minority attributes can help memory, but they also lead to confusion,” the lead author said. “There is this double edge to it: If I am the only woman or racial minority navigating social networks, that might actually be helpful to being remembered. But as soon as there are others, that’s not going to be the case anymore.”

The research was published in the Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics.

The authors believe they are the first to provide evidence of bias in our ability to remember professionally relevant information about people, which could contribute to discrimination. If one isn’t remembered based on gender or race, it could hurt their chances of being recruited for a job or invited to collaborate or give a talk, for an academic, or equivalent opportunities in other businesses.

They began their study in the field with a pair of prominent economics conferences held in the U.S. and Scotland, where respectively 35% and 20% of presenters were women, and 11% and 16% were nonwhite.

One month after each of the events, the researchers followed up with conference goers to see how well they remembered who had presented what. Nearly 90 study participants were asked to match pictures of presenters with titles of their research papers, given four choices. Then, seeing a presenter’s photo, they were asked to write that person’s name and institution.

The results showed that female presenters were much more likely than male presenters – by 14 percentage points – to be correctly matched to a photo, but study participants couldn’t remember their names or institutions any better.

The scholars controlled for measures of experience and productivity that might make a presenter better known, such as their institution’s rank or publications in top journals, and if they shared the same field, gender or ethnicity as the study respondents.

The field data was limited by the conferences’ small number of nonwhite presenters, so the researchers also conducted controlled experiments online to test a larger sample. Nearly 400 study participants viewed photos from a database randomly paired with titles of economics papers, then tried to match the names and titles in multiple choice questions.

The results confirmed those from the field. Women were remembered better if they were a minority, but not if the choices included multiple women. Women and nonwhite people were more likely to be confused with others of the same gender or race, particularly when there were more to choose from.

“Gender and race are attributes that people encode very quickly about others,” the researchers said. “But we demonstrate that they are not able to recall the exact person very well. They are more likely to confuse these people with others who share the same attributes.”

The researchers said the findings are consistent with prior research on memory proposing that that people are categorized by minority attributes and “blended together” with others sharing them.

“We do not know the implications of these biases for people’s careers,” the authors conclude, “but given the importance of recall in network formation, we conjecture these effects may not be small.”

So, what? This is a fascinating piece of research, and it needs following up with fMRI studies to see what parts of the brain are active during each of the situations. Also a wider pool of respondents would be needed to give the findings more authenticity.

However, it does fit in with previous research into short term memory. Objects that are different stand out more and are more easily remembered than those which share characteristics of a multitude of similar objects.

Also, after a careful reading of the study, I’m not sure that the conclusion that this particular cognitive bias may affect a person’s career prospects is justified by the evidence presented.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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