Does Awareness Reduce Racial Bias?

Keith Ellison/Flickr

NBA referee Tre Maddox

Source: Keith Ellison/Flickr

Drawing attention to a problem isn't always the right way to fix it...but in the case of racial prejudice , it just might be.

New research published in a recent issue of Management Science examines racial bias in the National Basketball Association.

To fully understand the story, we must travel back to 2007, when an academic study concluded that NBA referees called more fouls against black players than whites. Interestingly, the bias wasn't dependent on the ethnicity of the referee; it was true of both black and white referees.

Various theories attempted to explain the controversial finding. Some suggested that this was a cultural "spillover" effect (i.e., blacks are perceived in general to be more violent than whites). Others though it might reflect some actual racial difference in basketball play style. Still others theorized it might have something to do with visual color perception.

Fast forward to 2018 when a group of researchers led by Devin Pope at the University of Chicago examined the effect the 2007 paper had on subsequent foul calling by NBA referees.

Teach kids this bravery trick. Tell them to always notice the color of a person's eyes. Making eye contact will help a hesitant child appear more confident and will help any kid to be more assertive and less likely to be picked on.

Using new data, they looked at two time periods. First, they examined the time following the 2007 analysis but before the media picked up on the story. Second, they looked at the time after the study had received media attention. Their goal was to assess whether media attention (and subsequent actions by the NBA, ameliorated (or perhaps worsened) the bias.

Interestingly, they found that the bias subsided over time. The foul calling bias persisted in the aftermath of the study but not once the media brought the story under public scrutiny.

The authors write, "Several potential mechanisms may have produced this result, including voluntary behavior changes by individual referees, adjustments by players to new information, and changes in referee behavior due to institutional pressure. These results suggest a new kind of Hawthorne effect in which greater scrutiny of even subtle forms of bias can bring about meaningful change."

In an age where media legitimacy seems constantly under attack, let this serve as an example of the fourth estate's ability to change society for the good.

Keep the tube in the family room. Research has repeatedly shown that children with a TV in their bedroom weigh more, sleep less, and have lower grades and poorer social skills. P.S. Parents with a television in their bedroom have sex less often.

@MarkWTravers