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Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Minority salience and the overestimation of individuals from minority groups in perception and memory

R. Kadosh, A. Y. Sklar, et al. 
PNAS (2022).
Vol 119 (12) 1-10.


Our cognitive system is tuned toward spotting the uncommon and unexpected. We propose that individuals coming from minority groups are, by definition, just that—uncommon and often unexpected. Consequently, they are psychologically salient in perception, memory, and visual awareness. This minority salience creates a tendency to overestimate the prevalence of minorities, leading to an erroneous picture of our social environments—an illusion of diversity. In 12 experiments with 942 participants, we found evidence that the presence of minority group members is indeed overestimated in memory and perception and that masked images of minority group members are prioritized for visual awareness. These findings were consistent when participants were members of both the majority group and the minority group. Moreover, this overestimated prevalence of minorities led to decreased support for diversity-promoting policies. We discuss the theoretical implications of the illusion of diversity and how it may inform more equitable and inclusive decision-making.


Our minds are tuned to the uncommon or unexpected in our environment. In most environments, members of minority groups are just that—uncommon. Therefore, the cognitive system is tuned to spotting their presence. Our results indicate that individuals from minority groups are salient in perception, memory, and visual awareness. As a result, we consistently overestimate their presence—leading to an illusion of diversity: the environment seems to be more diverse than it actually is, decreasing our support for diversity-promoting measures. As we try to make equitable decisions, it is important that private individuals and decision-makers alike become aware of this biased perception. While these sorts of biases can be counteracted, one must first be aware of the bias.


Taken together, our results from 12 experiments and 942 participants indicate that minority salience and overestimation are robust phenomena. We consistently overestimate the prevalence of individuals from minority groups and underestimate the prevalence of members from the majority group, thus perceiving our social environments as more diverse than they truly are. Our experiments also indicate that this effect maybe found at the level of priority for visual awareness and that it is social in nature: our social knowledge, our representation of the overall composition of our social environment, shapes this effect. Importantly, this illusion of diversity is consequential in that it leads to less support for measures to increase diversity.