Bias and performance

· That blog you have just entered

TL;DR: It's easier to perform well in a group if your social environment considers you to be a good performer.

About a year ago my mum told me about a TV program called "Projekt Lady" (english version of this is called "Ladette to Lady"). As far as I understood, the premise was that several young people were selected for a special training that made them behave as if they were aristocrats. At first, I felt it was quite amusing. Then a bit awful1. But it is an example of how a person's behavior can change with proper motivation.

People make quick judgments about others that are more often rationalized than changed. We notice this quite early in our lives which is why making a good first impression is a very common manipulation. But the list of cognitive biases is very long. And being able to exploit them makes it much easier to traverse the social hierarchy.

# Personal story: University

I remember that during the first year of my computer science studies, I prepared for all the classes, participated in all the lectures and tried to complete as many tasks from the excercise lists as possible. I would always be willing to stand in front of a blackboard, answer any questions and get very good grades. This made me somewhat recognizable among the scientific staff.

In the third year of my studies, I started working part-time. The quality of my education would deteriorate very quickly. I spent much less time preparing for anything, exams included. My grades got a bit worse. But that didn't matter. I had full confidence I'd be able to complete my coursework no matter what happened.

Near the end of the academic year I got a cool offer to go to Switzerland for a six months long internship. There was a catch, though. I'd have to start one month before the end of the year exams. No problem! A few short conversations here and there, plus I had to submit some projects a bit earlier, and that's it.2 In their eyes I was a good student after all. The job experience that I managed to secure helps me profoundly throughout my adult life to this day.

Would I be able to achieve the same if I were an average student? Maybe. But I doubt I'd have it in me to even try to fight for this kind of special treatment. Why would I? The unviersity statue already tells me that it's impossible. It sounds unjust to even consider such action.

# Personal story: Middle school

During the first semester of my middle school I had a math teacher that caught me once on not paying attention to what he was saying. In his eyes I was just too stupid to understand what was going on. After ridiculing and humiliating me in front of the class for the rest of the lesson, he would advise my parents to reassign me to another school.

In my eyes this served as an anchor through which others would perceive me. Seeing an authoritative adult aggressively offending a child by other children doesn't do much good, I'll tell you that much. I got bullied a lot, had very poor grades and was not encouraged by anyone to pursue any challenging educational goal. Nobody would talk to me for the sheer joy of having a conversation3.

Trying to change anybody's opinion that was so strongly rooted was a very slow process. Over many years I was able to achieve it with a few people that are friends with me now. But most would disregard my problem, as it did not affect them.

# The role of bias

The clear difference between the two stories above is the social environment that I was a part of. In total, we can observe at least eight different biases at play, each marked with a hyperlink to a Wikipedia website with an explanation4. Together, they are the means through which social reality was shaped for me. Having a good relationship with friends and colleagues enabled me to pursue goals that had a highly positive impact on my life. Not having such privilege makes everything all too hard.

The way I felt others perceived me had a very strong influence on my behavior. In psychology this is called a self-fulfilling prophecy. The most common and dangerous offshoot of this mechanism is stereotype threat, where an individual from a stereotyped group performs noticeably below their capabilities. This is, in particular, a difficult challenge for certain minorities, and we should all be aware of this.

This experience is very valuable and helpful to me as an adult. It has a particular influence on my life because of the following conclusion:

It's easier to switch social environments than to fight against negative biases other people have against you. On the other hand, sometimes such a situation may be caused by real issues that can use some fixing. So the following rule of thumb applies: if it's worth it, stay and fight until the situation stops improving or you stop developing. Then switch.

There is no such person that achieved enormous success as a result of their inner traits alone. We are social creatures and thrive when having support from others. Now you know. And knowing is half the battle.

  1. Who needs aristocrats (except aristocrats)? ↩︎

  2. Without a doubt I wouldn't be able to pull that off if not for the support from other students. Thank you again! ↩︎

  3. Except for the said math teacher at some point, surprisingly. ↩︎

  4. This paragraph contains five more. ↩︎

Have a question? Email me! :)