Katy Milkman: There’s this riddle that’s been around for many years, and it goes something like this: A father and a son are in a car accident. They’re both taken to the hospital. The father is pronounced dead on arrival. The son is seriously injured but has a weak pulse. He needs an operation immediately. The surgeon scrubs for the operation, but as the boy is whisked into the emergency room, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate on this boy. He’s my son.”
How is this possible? His father died in the car crash. The answer is simple: The surgeon is the boy’s mother.
Katy Milkman: Now, maybe you’ve heard this riddle before, and not everyone gets stuck on it, but many do, and it points to a tendency we all have to rely on imperfect shortcuts when we make judgments. Today, we’ll look at this tendency, and how it helps us quickly organize the world, but how it can also lead to important errors.
I’m Katy Milkman, and this is Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. It’s a show about the subtle forces that can push you in one direction or another when you’re trying to make a decision, often without you even realizing it. We bring you high-stakes stories that illustrate these hidden sources that can shift decisions, and then we dive into the science behind our occasionally irrational behavior. Finally, we try to give you some tools to fight back against behavioral traps, and it’s all to help you avoid costly mistakes.
Sophie Morgan: Going into this modeling industry was strange and new, and really fun at times, doing shoots where they take up to five hours to do your hair and makeup. Honestly, all the different looks, the different styles, the different hair, the different clothes, the makeup, and the team, it was a whole new world. It was really fun.
Katy Milkman: This is Sophie. She’s describing her experience as a model on a reality TV show in Britain.
Sophie Morgan: I was approached by the BBC when they were looking for some models, and that’s how I got to know about the program. It takes on the same format as the very well-known series America’s Next Top Model, a group of girls all competing for a modeling contract. So there were challenges in lots of different ways that would, I think, reflect what life would be like as a working model.
Katy Milkman: The formula for the show was typical. The contestants lived together during production.
Sophie Morgan: Yeah, the penthouse we lived in was really beautiful. It’s over in a really smart part of London called Chelsea. And it overlooked the river, and it was just absolutely stunning. It had loads of bedrooms. I can’t even remember how many bedrooms there were in there. It was really modern and contemporary and beautiful. It was a really amazing place to spend time.
It’s a funny thing to do, to be taken out of your life and your world and put into a very contained environment with a group of other women that you’re actually competing against. We were very removed from life. Like, we weren’t allowed to watch the news, or watch television, or check in with our friends and families. We were very much in this little bubble.
Katy Milkman: Some of the challenges they filmed for the show were awkward.
Sophie Morgan: So we were taken to a lingerie shop, and we selected some underwear, and we had to put this on and go into the store window, and just act like we were almost like a mannequin. Just stand or sit or pose in the window. We had people staring in the window at us. We had people taking pictures. We had people laughing, crossing the road, falling over. I mean, you name it. I mean, we’re British, for God’s sake. We’re not good at that kind of thing at the best of times. It was hilarious, really, but we had to keep a straight face and act all professional.
Katy Milkman: The show’s reach also meant an enormous number of people were seeing Sophie’s photos.
Sophie Morgan: There was a moment when one of our photo shoots was put up in Piccadilly Circus, which is the equivalent of our Times Square, up in lights, flashing images of us modeling. It’s mad, because I live in London, and I go down that street so regularly, and so to see myself up there was amazing.
Katy Milkman: It was a positive experience overall, though Sophie didn’t win the competition. She placed second, but the publicity was still a boon for her career.
Sophie Morgan: After that, I got approached by a handful of production companies and channels over here in the U.K. who said, “We thought you were great on TV. Have you ever thought about presenting?” And I obviously hadn’t, so I just said, “Yes, let’s give that a go.”
Katy Milkman: Sophie turned out to be a natural on-air talent. She went on to host several TV shows, and the work has taken her all over the world.
Sophie Morgan: I really, I actually love it. It’s an amazing job, and I get to do lots of different things. I make documentaries for The Unreported World, where we go and we make programs all around the world about issues that don’t get mainstream attention. So I was recently in Australia, and we were flying over it for about five hours to get to the center of the Outback to go and make this program. And as we landed, the sun was going down, and you could see Ayers Rock, and you could see kangaroos jumping through the scene. You’ve just got to pinch yourself, because that’s once in a lifetime, being able to see those sort of things.
Katy Milkman: And the opportunities kept coming.
Sophie Morgan: There was one pivotal moment, really, in my career, where I had gone from making documentaries here or there to actually being invited to screen test for the coverage for the biggest sporting event in the world, basically, the Olympics and Paralympics.
Katy Milkman: Sophie’s screen test went really well. She got the job.
Sophie Morgan: And we flew out to Rio to cover this unbelievable event, and I was out in Rio for 11 days, and we were broadcasting live for four hours every single day. So it was proper in the deep end, and I was terrified, because it was live TV, and I’d never done anything live before. And you get a countdown in your ear of five, four, three, two … and then you’re live. And that feeling of being broadcast live, and you’re live to an audience of millions, I can’t tell you how intimidating, but exhilarating. It’s the most amazing feeling.
Katy Milkman: Sophie went from a contestant on a reality TV show to a broadcaster with an audience in the millions. Success seemed to come easily.
I’m going to pause here. Assuming you don’t know Sophie, I want you to take a minute and think about how you’ve been picturing her in your mind. Do you imagine that she’s short or tall? Or maybe average height? Does she have curly hair or straight hair? Brown or red hair? Maybe she’s a blonde?
Sophie Morgan: Hi, my name is Sophie Morgan. I’m paralyzed from the chest down, and I use a wheelchair.
Katy Milkman: OK, be honest. Did you picture Sophie in a wheelchair? Probably not. If you’re like most people, a wheelchair hasn’t figured prominently in your encounters with models, or TV show hosts, or sportscasters. It wasn’t top of mind when you were building up an idea of Sophie. That image that you had before we revealed her disability was likely based on a quick and subconscious recollection of your prior experiences of models or TV presenters, or the general population. We’ll get into this more in a bit, but first, let’s get to know Sophie beyond her TV résumé.
Sophie was injured in an accident when she was 18. She was at a party with friends, celebrating the results of final exams.
Sophie Morgan: We left the party at about 4 a.m., it must have been, and it was very dark. We were in rural Scotland, and very little light around, and drove down this very country lane. And we were listening to music really, really loud. Like, really loud, and I was speeding like a crazy person. I’d only had my license for about six months or something. I was a very inexperienced driver and had four passengers, all of whom were really good friends, one of which was my boyfriend. And at one point, I turned to him, and I said, “Where’s that really sharp corner?” And when I turned back around to face the road, there we were upon the sharp corner, and I just spun the wheel very, very quickly to try and take that corner, and just misjudged it, and lost control of the car, and then it flipped into the field.
And in that flipping and crashing, I had damaged pretty much all of my face. My skull was broken open. My jaw was broken. My cheek was crushed up. And my nose was just completely gone. That was smashed to pieces. There was a moment when I was being flown down from Scotland to go be in a hospital in London, and I remember that, being in the air, suddenly becoming kind of conscious that I was suddenly in the air, which was bizarre, and then they told my mom and dad that I hadn’t really got a chance of living.
Katy Milkman: Sophie obviously beat those odds and survived. But she had sustained a spinal cord injury and was paralyzed from the chest down.
Remember how I had asked you to picture Sophie before you knew she was paralyzed? Now I want you to hear about how people often saw her after the accident.
Sophie Morgan: You know, I was an 18-year-old girl, going from just a normal young girl to a disabled person. It was extraordinarily weird, to be considered … I remember going to university after I had recovered from my injury, and someone referring to me as the disabled girl. It was just like, a big slap in the face. And struggling with my identity, with relationships, with boys, and with myself, and understanding even little things, like how do I dress myself? What do I wear? What’s my image now? That was really difficult, really, really difficult.
I had a place at art school for that year, and when I recovered from my injuries, I went to the college and I said, “Look, I’ve had a bit of a change of plan. I was going to be coming here anyway, but now I’m coming here in a wheelchair.” And they literally—they just looked at me like I was a crazy person, and they said, “There’s no way you can do the course. As a wheelchair user, it’s just not adapted for you.” And I couldn’t believe it. This was my first example of discrimination. I’d never experienced anything like that before.
And I remember talking to my mom. I said, “What am I going to do? I want to go to school. I want to study art. How am I going to do this?” She said, “Right. We’re just going to have to get a lawyer. We’re going to have to fight this.” And that’s what we did, and we fought it, and I have to say, it’s been a fight ever since. It’s the fight that I still, I’m fighting. The world around me is not adapted to wheelchair users, and so it’s an ongoing battle.
Katy Milkman: That battle is against many things, but it’s often against stereotypes, those mental shortcuts we all use when we try to categorize the world around us.
Before you knew Sophie was paralyzed, you probably imagined a stereotypical model: tall, thin, young. If I’d presented Sophie first as a person with a disability, you likely would have had a very different image in your mind.
Sophie Morgan: There’s two types of disabled people in the public eye. There’s the benefit-scrounger who doesn’t do anything, and has a disability that defines them, and is more of a taker than a giver. And then, there’s this other side that we’ve got, where you’re seeing Paralympic superheroes of disabled people, of people who overcome their disability and go and do amazing things. And there’s a danger there, because actually, there’s a lot of us in the middle who are just normal people, living normal lives, doing normal things with their disabilities.
Katy Milkman: Sophie thinks there’s a simple reason why these stereotypes exist.
Sophie Morgan: There aren’t enough disabled people in these industries, so there aren’t models with disabilities. There aren’t television presenters in wheelchairs. There aren’t these things. I mean, I can say, hands down, I’m one of the only television presenters in the world with a visible disability. I mean, it’s extraordinary, and yes, these stereotypes, they’re just part of our psyche. They’re part of who we are. As a television presenter, and someone in the public eye with a disability, I constantly strive to shatter those stereotypes.
Katy Milkman: Sophie Morgan is a former reality TV contestant. She competed with seven other disabled women on Britain’s Missing Top Model. She’s been a TV presenter for the BBC and was a lead presenter for Channel 4’s coverage of the 2012 and 2016 Summer Paralympics. Sophie also works with a number of different charity organizations, including Scope and Human Rights Watch, and she has designed a wheelchair for fashion display mannequins, to help retailers more accurately represent people with disabilities. I’ve got links in the show notes, and at Schwab.com/podcast.
I told you Sophie’s story backwards, with her modeling and TV success first, and I did that to get you to think about her in a certain way. To recall examples of models and hosts on TV who you’ve encountered in the past. I left out information about Sophie’s disability on purpose, to demonstrate how we make quick judgments when faced with uncertainty or incomplete information.
Let me demonstrate this tendency from a different angle. We gave the following description to several people.
Speaker 3: OK, so I’m going to describe someone, and I want you to tell me what this person likely does for a living. William is a fan of the opera. He enjoys going to art museums when he goes on vacation, and he enjoys playing chess with his friends. So which is more likely: A, William is a professional violinist for a major symphony orchestra, or B, William is a farmer?
Speaker 4: I’m going to go with the obvious one, that he’s a violinist.
Speaker 5: William is probably a professional violinist.
Speaker 6: OK, I’m going to go with the violinist. Seems the obvious choice, I know, but A.
Speaker 3: And why do you think A?
Speaker 7: I think that those hobbies would all be more commonly enjoyed by people who are professional musicians.
Katy Milkman: Most of the people we spoke to chose the first option, that William was a violinist, because the description matches the stereotype we hold about classical musicians. But in reality, the likelihood of William being a farmer is far higher, because farmers make up much larger proportions of the population than professional violinists in major symphony orchestras.
This error is called base rate neglect, and it’s due to something called the representativeness heuristic. Basically, it’s a mental shortcut or rule of thumb to help you categorize things in a complex world. A stereotype is a prime example of the representativeness heuristic. When you heard about Sophie Morgan’s experience in a reality TV modeling competition, your brain called up an idea that she was representative of models, and that idea probably didn’t include a wheelchair.
Here’s another example of the power of stereotypes.
Speaker 3: So Annie is 29 years old. She is single. She’s outspoken. She’s very bright. When she was a student, she majored in English literature, and she was deeply interested in the theater. So which is more probable, that Amy is A, a bank teller, or B, Amy is a bank teller, and she writes an arts review for her local newspaper? What do you think?
Speaker 8: Yeah, I’m going to go with B.
Speaker 9: I guess, B. She’s a bank teller and writes an arts review.
Speaker 10: Let’s say the second one.
Speaker 11: I hope she’s, you know, pursuing writing, if that’s what she studied, right?
Katy Milkman: Again, almost everyone we spoke to figured the second description was more likely, even though whenever you add another category—in this case, the category of newspaper columnist—the likelihood of someone belonging to both categories is always less than belonging to just one.
This example is actually quite famous, though the woman in the original story was named Linda, not Amy. It was used by Amos Tversky and economics Nobel laureate Danny Kahneman in a study they ran about 40 years ago, to illustrate what they called the conjunction fallacy. In short, even when adding more features to an outcome makes it less probable, if those details match our stereotypes, we tend to falsely infer that the outcome’s probability has increased.
Katy Milkman: We rely heavily on stereotyping as a shortcut, and while shortcuts can come in handy, they can also lead us to make some major logical and ethical mistakes. I’ve invited two of my collaborators to chat with me on today’s show, as both have looked at stereotypes and the representativeness heuristic in their research. First, Modupe Akinola, who’s an associate professor at Columbia Business School.
So Modupe, let’s start at the beginning. What is a stereotype?
Modupe Akinola: So a stereotype is a snap judgment that we make about a person or about a thing that can influence our decision-making. Every day, we get millions and millions and millions of bits of information in our heads that associate good and bad with certain people or groups or things, and any time we then see those people or those groups or those things, that association that has been fed to us comes immediately to our mind. It is a quick heuristic, or a snap judgment decision-making process that we engage in, that everyone engages in.
Katy Milkman: Why do you think we do this?
Modupe Akinola: We do this because we are processing so much information all the time, so we need these mental shortcuts to allow us to navigate the world. If not, we’d be just going through so much information that we get all the time, and wouldn’t be able to function, quite frankly. So we have to, to make life easier, to simplify. But again, any type of shortcut can have its pros and also its cons.
Katy Milkman: What are some of your favorite studies about stereotyping, or the representativeness heuristic?
Modupe Akinola: My favorite studies in the domain of stereotyping are what we refer to as audit studies, which are studies where you go into the real world, and you observe real-world behavior. The classic study that Sendhil Mullainathan and his colleagues ran, they looked at ads in the newspaper, which were advertising for jobs, entry-level types of positions. And what they did was, they sent résumés of candidates to these job ads, and all they did in these résumés, which were identical, was change the name on the résumé to signal race. So Lakisha and Jamal were examples of black-sounding names, that were tested and pre-tested to ensure that they would signal race, versus a name like Catherine, or something like that, which would be a more white-sounding name.
So they responded to these ads, sent those résumés in, and all they did was wait to see who called back which candidates. And they found that the Lakishas and Jamals received fewer callbacks, or calls to actually go interview, than the white-sounding names. And again, it’s attributed to stereotypes, the idea that we make presumptions or snap judgments about who might be more qualified for a job, who might do well in a job, even in the context of identical information. And so that’s one of the most powerful audit studies out there.
Katy Milkman: Have you ever experienced stereotyping personally?
Modupe Akinola: One of my favorite personal experience with stereotyping, as an African American professor, was in the early days of my teaching. I’d often find myself setting up to teach a class, and somebody, usually a prospective student, would come in and say, “Oh, I’d like to sit in on this class and learn more about this class. Where’s the professor?” Yes, they would say that to me, as I’m setting up, looking like the professor, on the computer getting everything ready. And that, for me, was a perfect example of how stereotypes can play a role.
Katy Milkman: So ageism and racism, all wrapped up into one.
Modupe Akinola: Exactly. I look young, so yes, that’s one of the reasons why they might ask. But I also am African American, and if you ask most people how many African American professors have you had, most would say zero or one. And then you ask them how many African American female professors have you had, and they would certainly say zero. Maybe some would say one.
So all of these stereotypes, the idea of what a professor looks like, an older white man with gray hair, is one of the factors that might make somebody come in, asking if the person at the podium preparing for work, wearing a suit, would be the professor, or asking whether the professor is on their way, or who the professor is. So that is, I feel like, a classic example of the many types of stereotypes that can be in our heads and can influence our behavior and our questions, and how we approach life.
Katy Milkman: I’m sure that those students were mortified when they learned that you were the professor.
Modupe Akinola: I hope they were. I hope they were. But you know what, to me, I love those moments in some ways, because one of the ways in which you change people’s stereotypes is by having counter-stereotypical exemplars.
Katy Milkman: Let’s talk more about that. I love that, and I think that’s a great way to use that story, is just to talk about how it also suggests a solution to this problem. So how can we combat stereotypes? How can we try to reduce the harm that they cause?
Modupe Akinola: I think one of the ways we can reduce the harm of stereotypes is just being aware. So we can change our behavior when we’re more aware that our behavior is being influenced by stereotypes and other factors.
The other way is also by being exposed to counter-stereotypical exemplars. What do I mean? I am a counter-stereotypical exemplar, being an African American female professor. So that student’s mere exposure to me means that the next time they go into another classroom with a person setting up who might be an African American woman, or might defy the stereotype of what a professor looks like, then they won’t automatically say, “Where’s the professor?”
One of the things I often tell my students is that they have a beautiful opportunity to be the walking and living and breathing counter-stereotypical exemplars in their work environments. I ask my students to think about the stereotypes that exist about them, the stereotypes that exist about people around them, the stereotypes that exist about people on their teams, and to realize that every day, they have the opportunity to defy those stereotypes, and to take that role very seriously, because everything, or many things that they’re doing, means that the next person that looks like them, or has that background, or whatever it is, that comes in is in a different place, an even more advantaged place, because they have defied the stereotype that exists about that category.
Katy Milkman: I love that example. It’s so powerful. Thank you so much, Modupe. This was really amazing. Thanks for joining. I appreciate it.
Modupe Akinola: Thanks so much for having me on.
Katy Milkman: Modupe Akinola is an associate professor of leadership and ethics at Columbia Business School.
Dolly Chugh is someone both Modupe and I have collaborated with, and she’s joined me on Choiceology before.
I’ve asked Dolly back on the show today to help us understand how researchers identify and measure the impact of stereotypes on our decisions.
Dolly, what does current research tell us about the cause and function of stereotypes?
Dolly Chugh: Yeah, the most interesting research on stereotypes has actually come out of the growing ability of social psychologists to distinguish the types of stereotypes that we all hold. We have a far more nuanced understanding of how the mind works than we used to. What we now know is that 99.99997 percent of our mental functioning appears to be happening outside of our conscious awareness, give or take. If some of your listeners listen to your podcast while driving home from a busy day at work, sometimes we walk in the door after that drive, and we can’t remember whether we had green lights or red lights on the way home, because we were really busy processing the busy day, and listening to Choiceology, and just didn’t need to pay attention to the red lights and green lights. We were able to take care of all that work on autopilot.
Stereotypes are part of that autopilot. They are part of what allows us to organize the world around us into categories, and not have to process every little thing individually. But we can imagine ways in which that also … sometimes we over-categorize and over-generalize.
The most exciting work now is that we can measure the stereotypes that are happening, both in our conscious and unconscious mind, or sometimes it’s referred to as implicit versus explicit stereotypes. And the advances social psychologists have made is that we now can measure those, not perfectly, but we have decent measures. One is called the implicit association test, or the IAT, where we can measure things that people may not consciously endorse or believe. They may not consciously endorse or believe this is true about this group of people, but they still, on an unconscious level, have that stereotype sitting in their minds.
Katy Milkman: So Dolly, how does the implicit association test work, and what have these tests shown?
Dolly Chugh: I should explain that there are different IATs on different topics, so people can choose which ones they want to do. Race, or gender, or religion, or there’s even a Coke/Pepsi IAT, or an Apple/PC IAT. People sit down at a computer, play something that feels like a video game, it’s fast and kind of millisecond-level response times, or 500 milliseconds, which is about half a second. And what the IAT researchers have found, based off of, I think the latest count was over 20 million IATs have been taken on the free, anonymous website that they have set up, is that pretty much everyone seems to have some unconscious stereotype that is not necessarily in line with their conscious stereotypes.
Men and women all tend to show, on average, implicit biases and stereotypes where they associate men with leadership, with science, with the workplace, and women less so with leadership, less so with science, more with humanities, and more with family than the workplace. What’s particularly interesting is that on the implicit level, women, on average, show that implicit stereotype even more than men, but on an explicit level, women show it less than men. So it’s a good example of where we see a divergence between the implicit and explicit, and where we see, just because you’re a member of a group doesn’t mean you’re immune from the implicit stereotypes that we’re sort of breathing in from the world around us.
Katy Milkman: Dolly, how would you think about countering implicit or explicit stereotypes?
Dolly Chugh: Here’s the good news and the bad news about implicit stereotypes and biases and attitudes: We haven’t yet figured out a magic bullet, how to just change the ones you don’t like. We haven’t found the vaccine for that yet. So, on the one hand, that might sound discouraging, but on the other hand, we do know that there’s all sorts of ways, using context, system, and processes, to ensure that those unconscious biases that we feel are messing with our business strategy don’t actually get in the way.
For example, if you’re worried that you’re not getting enough input from certain groups because you know that your unconscious stereotypes about that particular group, that function, is negative, there’s ways in which you would, rather than expecting them to, on their own, have their input rise to the top in the conversation, what if you were to have everyone generate ideas, but have them be blinded? So you don’t know that idea came from manufacturing, or from marketing, or from whichever group you’re worried you’re not giving full input to.
And so in other words, using a system like that, organizations are blinding résumés, making it in the hiring process that until you actually interview the person, you don’t see the name on the résumé. These are all systems that allow us to take unconscious bias off the table as long as possible in our judgment processes.
Katy Milkman: Dolly, thank you so much for being here. I really appreciate it.
Dolly Chugh: Thank you so much for having me, Katy.
Katy Milkman: Dolly Chugh is an associate professor of management and organizations at New York University’s Stern School of Business, and the author of the book The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. I’ve got links to her book, and also to the free implicit association test she mentioned, in the show notes and at Schwab.com/podcast.
Just as we stereotype people, we also stereotype investment opportunities. We might mistakenly assume all investments, say, in a certain asset class, must have comparable risk profiles, or that all tech companies will have similar returns after an IPO. That’s one reason Schwab also produces the podcast Financial Decoder, which is specifically designed for people who want to make better financial decisions. Host Mark Riepe and his guests dissect the financial choices you might be facing and offer tips to mitigate the impact of biases on your financial life. You can find it at Schwab.com/FinancialDecoder or wherever you listen to podcasts.
We’ve spent most of this episode talking about stereotypes as they relate to people or groups of people. But the representativeness heuristic applies to things just as well. We also stereotype objects, companies, regions of the world and even seasons. For instance, we might assume that the weather is going to be a lot warmer in April than in March, and while that’s true on average, there’s not much difference between March 31st and April 1st, but we expect there will be.
As Modupe Akinola mentioned, counter-stereotypical exemplars are helpful. Seek out exceptions to the rule, and you can make more balanced decisions. And Dolly Chugh’s idea of blinding yourself to the information that might bias you, like the name or age of a job applicant, or the price of a wine, or the brand of a T-shirt, can sometimes help you make better decisions. For instance, you can look at the ratings for a list of microwaves, but hide the brand names, and you might make better judgments about each product’s value. Sometimes it takes more effort, but of course, judging a book by its cover means you can miss valuable information.
You’ve been listening to Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. If you’ve enjoyed the show, leave us a review on Apple podcasts, and while you’re there, you can subscribe for free. Same goes for other podcasting apps. Subscribe, and you won’t miss an episode.
Next time on the show, we’ll look at how over-optimism and oversimplification can wreak havoc on your plans and your budgets.
I’m Katy Milkman. Talk to you next time.
Speaker 14: For important disclosures, see the show notes, or visit schwab.com/podcast.