On a recent episode of The Human Brain podcast titled How Favoritism Leads to Injustice, Mahzarin Banaji a psychologist who studies discrimination told the story about a fellow Yale professor who cut a long and deep gash in her hand when she dropped a crystal bowl she was washing.
Her partner rushed her to the hospital where the attending physician was kind and competent and said she shouldn’t worry they would take care of her wound. The professor explained she was a quilter and really needed all the feeling to return to her hand and fingers.
As the doctor began to stitch her up one of her students happened by and recognizing the professor stopped for a moment to greet her. The doctor listening to them talk asked his patient, “Are you a professor at Yale?” When the professor nodded the doctor stopped his stitching rushed the professor to a different hospital wing, called the best hand surgeon in New England who along with a team of other doctors operated on the professor’s hand for several hours.
Mahzarin Banaji says the professor was not refused service because of her gender, race or some other difference because that would have been discrimination. No, the emergency room doctor treated her in a professional and positive manner but……..when he knew she was a professor she received preferred and better treatment.
Mahzarin wants us to consider whether favouritism is really an often overlooked act of discrimination.
Discrimination is illegal. Favouritism is not against the law even though the consequences can be just as unjust.
In the workplace, favouritism might be a boss giving promotions to people who attend their church, or assigning the youngest most attractive people for high profile tasks, or tending to hire those of certain national origin.
An article in the New York Times about book publishing during the pandemic suggested to me that editors will show favouritism towards agents and authors who are part of the inner circle in the industry, those they hobnob and lunch and have cocktails with. Getting your book published means “knowing the right people” and being favoured by them.
A study by two American psychologists Tony Greenwald and Thomas Pettigrew found that most discrimination isn’t caused by an intention to harm people who are different than we are but by showing favouritism to people who are similar to us. They say we all have a kind of “in-group”- people who we feel comfortable with because they are the same age, race, religion, gender, ethnicity, live in the same neighbourhood or went to the same university. We can identify with these people and so we will do favours for them and they will do favours for us.
But we also all have an “out-group”, people with whom we really can’t identify in most ways. By not doing the same kind of favours for them we are being discriminatory and prejudiced.
I have been thinking about who is part of my “in-group” and how I might have favoured them. I have been thinking about how favouritism has influenced my life both in good and not so good ways. How has favouritism played a role in my work life, my work as a writer and journalist, my community life and even my family life?
How has favouritism impacted you and how has it influenced the way you treat others?
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