The relationship between sexism and our heuristics

Heuristics are rules we generate personally based on our past experiences. The two types of heuristics which will be used in this post are the availability heuristic and the representative heuristic. The availability heuristic is based on the increasing amount of information available on a topic leading individuals to believe that something happens more often, even if its actual rate of occurrence is decreasing. The representative heuristic is used when determining the probability of something happening based on it being similar to something else which a person has had experience with.

So how does this relate to sexism? Due to the nature of heuristics discussed above, we can deduce that sexism may arise as a result of not having enough positive, or too much negative, personal experience with people of the other gender.

The representative heuristic is heavily responsible for sexism because it expresses that all men are expected to behave in very similar ways, and this is the exact case with women. This may lead to stereotyping, and based on whether the individual receiving the information is male or female, a confirmation bias could be present leading to a negative implication on one of these genders, and hence sexism.

A confirmation bias is a trait which we possess and develop that makes us believe what we want to believe, but not believe what we don’t wish to believe.

Confirmation bias, for example, may make sexism itself seem to have become an even bigger problem due to the increased amount of articles of perceived sexism. However this may only suggest that people are becoming more sensitive to sexism because they wish to believe that something is sexist and may try and ‘force’ that belief. Even though there are more articles, it is very possible that less of what used to be considered as sexist may be occurring.

The development of a confirmation bias doesn’t help this situation at all because in the long run, it may prevent people from changing their opinion because they have become far less willing to listen to the opinions of other people who are attempting to change the attitude of the sexist or even the person who could be regarded as ‘sensitive’.

In summary, we can conclude that many other types of discrimination (ironically using the representative heuristic!) occur as a result of the representative heuristic, and awareness of a problem is raised by the availability heuristic, even if the actual rate of occurrence for the problem hasn’t risen sharply. However due to the confirmation bias problem consequently arising, it is therefore very difficult to completely eradicate such problems.

How does language shape thought?

There is substantial evidence that language can shape the thoughts of other people, and possibly that different languages make people think in different ways.

An interesting piece of evidence for this was an experiment involving English, Spanish and Japanese speakers and how their respective languages affected how they saw whether something was accidental or on purpose, and who did the action. This was because of the three, the Spanish and Japanese languages are much less likely to mention who did something if it was on accident. The result of the experiment was that all language speakers had the same ability to recall intentional actions. However, interestingly, English speakers were best at reporting who did accidental deeds, which was evidently a result of the language rather than them simply having better memory, as all three language speakers can be seen to have equal memory capability with the intentional actions.

An idea that ties in nicely to this idea is that the rules of different languages impact the way in which people carry out certain tasks. For example while English speakers tend to organise things from left to right, Hebrew speakers usually organise things from right to left, which is the same direction as the one in they both write in. While this is most likely a subconscious decision, the outcome of this shows that the languages we have been surrounded by shape the way in which we think.

No two languages have the exact same concepts. For example there are idioms we have in English which would make no sense to speakers of other languages because the same idioms are not used. there are even words which some languages have but others don’t. However while this may have no direct meaning in other languages, speakers of some languages may understand what the intention of that speakers words are.

In summary, we can see that language shapes the way in which we think about things. We also see that there are pieces of knowledge in some languages which don’t technically exist in others. This means that translation is far more successful into some languages than it is into others.

This therefore means that thought and language help to shape each other. Does this mean that knowledge of multiple languages may even heighten the thought process of multilingual individuals.

Does this then mean that the more languages a person knows, and the more different those languages, the more knowledge they possess?

Personal and Shared Knowledge

Personal knowledge is a form of knowledge that can not be passed on by an individual. It is more likely to be knowing how to do something that knowing that something is the case. This may be to do with skills that only the individual possesses, for example, the frequently used example of Herbie Hancock, a famous jazz piano player. He has an ability to play the piano that he is unable to teach other people. While he may be able to teach other individuals how to play the piano, he can’t teach people to play the piano in the exact same way that he does.

This is because of the 6 conditions of sharing knowledge. These are:

  • Motivation to share;
  • Knowledge exists in a form that can be transported over distance and time;
  • Technologies for transporting knowledge exist;
  • Shared concepts and conventions (e.g. common measurement, scientific concepts);
  • Shared methodology (e.g. reading, reasoning (use of evidence), maths);
  • Shared history giving meaningfulness to question.

All 6 of these conditions must be satisfied to be able to share knowledge. Again using the example of Herbie Hancock, we see that the skill of playing the piano to such a high level is very difficult to communicate, and therefore this knowledge can’t be transported. Therefore, as stated earlier, while Hancock may be able to share the knowledge of playing the piano in general, he can’t teach others to play the piano in the exact same way that he does.

This shows that there is not always a clear line between personal knowledge and shared knowledge, meaning that all conditions of the knowledge have to be taken properly into account. In this example, the deciding factor was being able to play like Herbie Hancock. 




Is knowledge objectively good?

The first question to ask here is what constitutes good? While there are numerous answers to this question, good can be described as actions or things that we consider to put ourselves and majority of others in any given situation at a benefit while having as few negative effects as possible. However, in almost all cases, one person may consider something to be good but another person may not. This means that ‘good’ in society is therefore dictated by a clear majority of people supporting an idea or action as it brings great benefit to them.

And this then brings us to the question ‘Is Knowledge objectively good?’ To be objectively good, something must be considered good by all people. However, due to good being subjective, there is no way that something can universally be considered good.

Now, on to knowledge itself, and whether that can be objectively good. The answer to this question is no. First of all because knowledge is subjectively good, while it may benefit one person in a situation, it may harm another or even many. And secondly because good itself is subjective as well. Therefore there is no situation in which something that we know will be morally correct (good) to all people who this knowledge may affect or be shared with.

First impressions of TOK

The very idea of posing questions regarding how we know what we claim to intrigued me before I had even stepped into the classroom! It also seemed very interesting to learn about the different ways which we have of knowing things and the various areas of knowledge.

TOK is unlike anything that I’ve done before. It is a discussion-heavy subject which is very different to the rest of my education at Christ’s Hospital.

It also interests me how every subject within the IB Programme has elements of TOK and this goes to show how significant it is within the programme.

However the scariest thing about it is that all of the school’s IB alumni that I’ve spoken to have found TOK to be a struggle in the beginning.

On the whole I feel excited, but nervous, about studying the Theory of Knowledge. Although it seems like a very interesting course, it is also a course that I have no experience with at all