Group Generalizations, Bias, and Medical Diagnosis

Part of the IDEA research seminar series

Speaker: Elizabeth Barnes (Virginia)

We generally believe that it is unfair to treat someone as a representation of their kind, or to indiscriminately apply group generalizations to an individual, even when those generalizations are statistically supported.

It is true, for example, that women make up the vast majority of consumers of romantic comedies. We are nevertheless being sexist if we assume, of a particular woman, that she likes romantic comedies, or that she is more interested in romantic comedies than in documentaries. In some cases, however, the connection between group generalization and the individual is significantly more complicated. I will focus on the case of medical diagnosis.

It is true, for example, that women are significantly more likely than men to suffer from anxiety disorders, and significantly more likely than men to experience somatic symptoms (such as GI distress, headache, etc) as part of their experience of anxiety. If a woman presents to a doctor’s office with a complaint of stomach pain, headache, and fatigue, is the physician justified in taking her gender into account when developing a differential diagnosis? Is it sexist for the physician to view anxiety as a more likely explanation for these symptoms in a woman than it would be in a man?

I will argue that this problem is significantly more intractable than is often suggested, and that extant solutions from the literature on pragmatic encroachment face substantial problems in the medical case that don’t arise in other cases.

All are welcome to attend.

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