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Quiet Bias


Never one to overstate the case…

As the elections across the water occupy our news media, I thought I would take a sideways look at two cornerstones of Western democracy – the jury-room and the voting booth.

I want to do so by looking at some recent research findings on the effect of anonymity on prejudice and bias in legal and electoral decision-making.

In both these processes, we rely on rational decision-making based on the objective analysis of evidence. But, we know that this is difficult to acheive.

In recent posts, we have seen (The Stranger in your Camp) that we are more likely to empathise with those who are like us, and blame the inherent guilt of strangers, when it comes to attributing intentionality and guilt (I Didn’t Mean to do that, Did I?).

Well, it turns out that we are even more likely to allow these prejudices to run riot if we are asked to make judgments in secrecy. This is as true of liberal altruists (Markey & Markey 2010) as it is of virulent racism directed towards the Obamas during the lead-up to the mid-term elections.

As we saw in yesterday’s post (What a piece of worke…), whether hiding in a crowd or hiding online, bigotry blooms in darkness. Sometimes, these are overt, conscious prejudices but, more often than we realise, our actions are guided by tacit and unconscious predisposition.

Lena Groeger’s (2010) discussion of the subliminal factors influencing voting behaviour lists:

  • Punishment Bias (whereby the voter goes into the voting booth wanting to teach the incumbent a lesson);
  • Action Bias (the voter votes for something to happen – a change because they are tired of the status quo);
  • First Listing Bias (like it or not, the person with their name first on the ballot sheet gets more votes than the others);
  • Pessimistic Bias (the voter bases their choice on an overly negative estimation of economic conditions).

Understanding similar quiet biases are also key to lawyers getting a positive result for their clients in a jury trial, because juries will tend to acquit those who they feel are most like them – whether in terms of faith / ethnicity or sharing membership of another in-group.

So, we cannot expect all those politicians we suspect of being corrupt or morally bankrupt to be convicted or thrown-out. The rule is – we will vote out those who are seen to be  from a weak out-group if they falter, no matter how brilliant or morally upright, and we will re-elect those we see as ‘one of us’ – no matter (almost) what they get up to.

It is also why defendants are more likely to be advised to self-identify as Muslim or gay than as an atheist – at least in the United States.  Prejudice against atheists can be considerable, in spite of the fact that such people are likely to be highly educated independent thinkers and achievers.

“This group doesn’t agree at all with my vision of American society.” Egdell et al (2006)

In an article earlier this year, Satoshi Kanazawa (2010) analysed how higher intelligence and educational achievement linked to atheism and liberal ideals. But, in voting booth and  jury room alike, there is a tendency to see liberal intellectuals as outsiders and untrustworthy.

These are venues for decisions which are central to liberal democracy. We assume that such decisions are taken by rational people, based on clear evidence and objective logic. Clearly that is not the whole story.

We often say that politicians face a ‘verdict’ from the electorate. This legal analogy may be more accurate than we think. Maybe, indeed, the jury has been fixed and it is time to open both processes up, so that this quiet bias can fade away in the light of day.


Egdell, P., Gerteis, J. and Hartman, D. (2006). Atheists as “other”: Moral boundaries and cultural membership in American society. American Sociological Review, 71(211-234).

Groeger L (2010); The Brain in the Voting Booth – How hidden biases influence our vote; 27.10.10;

Kanazawa S (2010);  Liberals and Atheists Are More Intelligent; Social Psychology Quarterly; 16.02.10

Markey, P., & Markey, C. (2010). Changes in pornography-seeking behaviors following political elections: an examination of the challenge hypothesis; Evolution and Human Behavior, 31 (6), 442-446

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