The topic of discrimination is not a new subject of discussion, nor its relationship to heuristics (cognitive ‘shortcuts’) and biases. However, I have observed that most discussions primarily focus on overt or easily recognizable discriminatory behaviours, with less attention given to the subtle biases that many of us unconsciously exhibit. Heuristics provide ‘shortcuts’ for decision making, which for the most part are very helpful in everyday life. There are occasions where this is not the case and taking this ‘shortcut’ leads to bias in judgement (Kahneman et al., 1982).
In the context of discrimination, these heuristics can unintentionally lead to microaggressions – subtle verbal and/or behavioral slights that convey negative or dismissive attitudes toward stigmatized and marginalized groups.
While there are numerous heuristics and biases we encounter daily, two of particular relevance are the availability heuristic and the representativeness heuristic. The availability heuristic relies on our ability to easily recall instances or events (Kahneman et al., 1982). By relying on availability to estimate frequency and likelihood, we can simplify judgements and respond to stimuli much quicker. In the case of microaggressions, this can manifest as the expectation that individuals who don’t fit the typical Caucasian Australian ‘look’ struggle with the English language and while this will only apply to a small group of people, this is often the image that is most available (Sue, 2010). Available not necessarily due to a high frequency of interactions that demonstrate this but more so the prevalence of the depictions of non-native English speakers in the media and the ease in which we remember situations in which language was a barrier as opposed to situations when it was not.
On the other hand, the representativeness heuristic involves judging probabilities by how closely one thing resembles another (Kahneman et al., 1982). In terms of microaggressions, this may lead to overestimating the likelihood of certain negative stereotypes, such as associating tattoos with gang affiliation, when realistically a huge proportion of the population have tattoos and it is not relevant at all to criminal behaviour. This overestimation can result in avoidance or exclusion behavior towards particular groups, perpetuating stereotypes (Sue, 2010). Now this on its own is a very small-scale example of the representativeness heuristic at play in a negative way, but same principle applies to a huge range of stigmatised or marginalised groups. Errors in the heuristic may lead to microaggression behaviours in the realms of racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, etcetera by well-intentioned and unaware individuals (Granger, 2011). That is not to say that heuristics are all bad by any means, certainly they are incredibly useful in making quick decisions and especially during times of stress or time constraints; unfortunately, it is exactly these situations that we are more susceptible to bias (Kahneman et al., 1982).
Heuristics operate in Type 1 thinking, which is quick and instinctive, as opposed to Type 2 thinking, which is slower and more deliberate (Stanovich & Toplak, 2012). During or after periods of heightened stress or attention, we tend to rely more on Type 1 processes, as Type 2 processes require more effort and time. This increased reliance on Type 1 thinking during stress can lead to greater bias in our judgments (Stanovich & Toplak, 2012).
In the context of discrimination and microaggressions, this has significant implications. With reduced engagement of Type 2 processes during stressful situations, the frequency of microaggressions may increase. Biases resulting from heuristics can have detrimental effects on stigmatized or marginalized groups, including the perpetuation of false beliefs, humiliation, reduced self-determination, and limited access to education, employment, and healthcare. Some sources even suggest that unintentional expressions of bias by well-meaning individuals can be more problematic than explicit discrimination (Granger, 2011; Kaur, 2018; Sue, 2010).
Despite its negative impact, it is also essential to recognise the value of heuristics and Type 1 thinking, especially in situations where quick judgments are necessary for safety or quick decision-making. Heuristics and Type 1 thinking are necessary for us to navigate the world around us, this does mean however, that it is also crucial to recognise when we use this thinking and how it can be problematic in certain contexts.
We’ve explored the complexities of stereotyping and discrimination at a personal level, examining the heuristics and biases that influence our judgments in everyday life. We’ve discussed how these effects can be amplified in certain situations, leading to various issues. However, it’s equally important to consider the usefulness of this thinking. What should we do with this knowledge? Should we strive to become more aware of our own heuristics and biases, even if they offer crucial information for our protection? The answer lies in actively engaging in Type 2 thinking whenever possible, practicing intentional thinking, and recognising moments of quick judgment. By doing so, we can reduce our reliance on Type 1 processes. As we become more aware of our unconscious biases, engaging Type 2 processes will enable us to navigate our own thinking more effectively.
Granger, N., Jr. (2011). Perceptions of Racial Microaggressions Among African American Males in Higher Education: A Heuristic Inquiry. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.
Kahneman, D., Slovic, P., & Tversky, A. (1982). Judgment under uncertainty: heuristics and biases. Cambridge University Press.
Kaur, K. (2018). Serious Effects of the Micro: Microaggressions and Their Traumatic Effects. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.
Stanovich, K. E. & Toplak, M. E. (2012). Defining features versus incidental correlates of Type 1 and Type 2 processing. Mind & Society, 11(1), 3–13. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11299-011-0093-6
Sue, D. W. (Ed.). (2010). Microaggressions and marginality: Manifestation, dynamics, and impact. John Wiley & Sons Inc.