What is it about?

How do we use pronouns when referring to people whose gender isn’t known yet? We investigated this question during the 2016 US presidential campaign and found that people were reluctant to refer to the future president with "she" even when they thought Hillary Clinton would win. We found a similar bias against "she" in comprehension where people incurred a considerable cognitive cost when encountering a "she" pronoun referring to the future president. We explain these findings in terms of linguistic biases that go beyond any biases on the conceptual level. We also compare the US findings to data from the UK, a country that has previously had a female head of government.

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Why is it important?

The way we talk about future presidents and other important roles shapes our perception of the world and potentially also guides (directly or indirectly) our actions, for instance, when voting for a male vs. female candidate. Our research shows that implicit linguistic gender biases are baked into our language system and that these biases go beyond biases that were previously demonstrated, e.g., using the Implicit Association Test. Our research therefore sheds new light on how language itself contributes to the spread and persistence of stereotypes in society.


Going into this research project, I knew fairly little about implicit biases in human cognition and I didn't quite know what outcomes to expect. More than three years later I can report that I learned a great deal about implicit gender biases, how they permeate many aspects of human cognition, and how deeply rooted they are. For me, it was also eye-opening to see that research methods from psycholinguistic research can be used so effectively to study questions of far-reaching societal relevance.

Titus von der Malsburg
Universitat Potsdam

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Implicit Gender Bias in Linguistic Descriptions for Expected Events: The Cases of the 2016 United States and 2017 United Kingdom Elections, Psychological Science, January 2020, SAGE Publications,
DOI: 10.1177/0956797619890619.
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