Bias & Equality

There is all the difference in the world between treating people equally and attempting to make them equal

Friedrich A. Hayek   


The above quote by the winner of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, Friedrich Hayek, makes a clear-cut distinction between being impartial (unbiased) and endeavouring to attain similar outcomes. This raises the question: is it acceptable to be biased when the goal is to accomplish a presumed higher purpose – in this case to “make people equal”?


An example of not treating people equally in our culture – noticeable to some, but not all, people - is the way particular groups are routinely portrayed differently in television commercials: Men are routinely depicted as irresponsible, clumsy or foolish as contrasted to women who are commonly shown as professional, judicial or practical. Stereotyping is regarded as a bias and generally disparaged but it seems we are required to look the other way when it serves a particular need. In this case the feeling, by some, that historical gender distinction requires not just correction but retribution. The potential damage to a generation of impressionable boys, from the continuous stream of negative depictions, is totally ignored.


I wanted to detect (as a forensic investigator), other than the gender bias in advertising as outlined above, the extent of these type of covert biases in today’s culture. Because of my knowledge and interests I focused on the world of sports. I looked at the behaviours of commentators, news reporters, and documentaries by observing and analyzing the language and images in television programs and web-sites.  The foundation for this work is this description of bias:


 An over-emphasis or exclusive focus on the positive (or negative) aspects of an object with an under-statement or disregard of the negative (or positive) aspects of that object, when compared to other contending objects (specified or implied). In this case the object being a specified grouping of people.


To get into gear for this complicated study# I started by examined situations where it is known that people feel totally free to be biased. Three domains were inspected: parents’ viewpoints regarding their children’s achievements; health and fitness related infomercials on radio and TV; and sports commentators for national teams. It was found that the best flags that identify bias were reflected in parents’ behaviour towards their kids. To signify this phenomenon the term Parentalism was coined for this type of bias; and the study generally used words, phrases, and presentation styles that blinkered parents use to describe and present their children. This reduced subjective judgments in selecting the bias characteristics for the study by having a mental "yardstick" for any comparison: is this the way a proud parent would act and talk when describing their child?


Sports websites and television stations were monitored. A few readily identifiable groups were selected for the "comparison" test.  Nationality and race was the focus. Interestingly, selected other groups appeared to be treated in a somewhat similar fashion.


One aspect that needed to be addressed was the “newsworthiness” of a topic. The media have free-reign to select a talking-point and thereby have the license to “frame” or bias an issue based on their judgement of what they claim is of interest to their customers. To the extent possible when newsworthiness was fully valid the data was not used.


Three "elements of bias" were selected for investigation: 1] Diction - the words and vocal style used by commentators and written reports; 2] Images, and their use; 3] Positive Adjectival Descriptions. The following table gives a flavor of the positive biases - the corresponding list of negative comments are not given here. 

Diction  Images Positive Descriptions
 Degree of vocal excitement  Image display time Athletic / Unstoppable
Repetition Size / placement of images Great Speed / Invincible
Excuses for poor or foul play Relevance of images Not intentional / Majestic
Comment on past good play Opening & closing... Strong / Imposing
Length of time (of comment) ...of an image sequence Dominant / Legend 


Results of this work showed that for each of the three elements of positive features there was a disproportionate usage (> 3 time the rate) for the "child" or favoured group of people. And negative features were disproportionately applied (> 2 times the rate) to a second grouping of people (not-favoured) - based upon the Bias Definition given above. 


It is generally thought that sport is a domain where fans can relax and forget other issues in their lives. It can be seen that it has (unfortunately) become a significant domain for creating and perpetuating particular stereotypes.


The site is not more explicit about the study’s findings because it relates a controversial issue and our purpose is to enhance cognitive awareness and critical thinking skills, and not to sway a reader’s viewpoint on particular topics. More importantly, cultural biases can change rapidly which would cause a more categorical finding to be wide of the mark in the future.


# This study does not purport to be scientific as it required background knowledge of the sports involved in the inquiry. Like all social science studies the findings are based on a number of assumptions. 


Bias is triggered by allowing one's emotions (positive or negative) to accept facts which are selfish, comfortable, and simplistic; and rejecting facts which are annoyingembarrassinganomalous, or difficult to comprehend


Discernment - a way to neutralize bias - is achieved by linking facts that form a logical chain with no weak links