Is the “person” or “persons” gender neutral?

The concept of “person” or “people” is, despite its definition, not neutral as to how we use these terms. In fact, we tend to prioritize men when referring to people in general, shows a new study from a team of psychology and linguistics researchers.

The results, reported in the journal Scientists progressare based on an analysis of over 630 billion words pulled from Internet web pages, using artificial intelligence tools to measure the meaning of words based on how they are used by millions of individuals.

“Many forms of bias, such as the tendency to associate ‘science’ with men more than women, have been studied in the past, but there has been far less work on how we perceive a ‘person. “,” says April Bailey, a postdoctoral researcher in New York University’s Department of Psychology and lead author of the paper.

“Our results show that even when we use gender-neutral terms, we prioritize men over women,” adds co-author Adina Williams, a researcher at Meta AI and a graduate of NYU’s Linguistics PhD program.

Bias at such a fundamental level — our word choices — is potentially consequential, the researchers note.

“Conceptions of ‘person’ form the basis of many societal decisions and policy-making,” observes Andrei Cimpian, a professor in New York University’s Department of Psychology and lead author of the paper. “Because males and females each make up about half of the species, prioritizing males in our collective idea of ​​a ‘person’ creates inequality for women in decisions based on that idea.”

The research team looked at the meaning of the words taking into account how they are used by individuals. Specifically, the team investigated how we use words expressing the concept of ‘person’ and its gendered counterparts, ‘woman’ and ‘man’.

To test whether we’re likely to think of men more often than women when writing about ‘people’, the team used artificial intelligence algorithms that learn the meaning of words based on how they are. used, drawing from a collected linguistic repository. by the non-profit organization Joint exploration in May 2017. This repository included more than 630 billion words, mostly in English, appearing on nearly three billion web pages.

The researchers examined how the meaning of words is related to context and word usage. For example, if you hear “Every morning Joe boils water in the balak for tea”, you might guess that “balak” means something similar to “kettle”, even though “balak” is not unfamiliar, as the words next to ‘balak’ (‘tea’, ‘boiled’ and ‘water’) also frequently coexist with ‘kettle’.

In the Scientists progress In this article, the researchers investigated, in three studies, the meaning of “person” and related words (e.g., “people”) taking into account adjacent words – the linguistic context.

In the first study, they compared the similarity in meaning (inferred by linguistic context) between words for people (eg, “individual”) and words for men (eg, “he” and “man”). ) to the similarity in meaning between words for people and words for women (e.g., “she” and “woman”).

They found that words for people were used more similarly, and therefore were more similar in meaning, to words for men than to words for women – and by a statistically significant margin. In other words, the collective concept “people” overlaps more with the concept “men” than with the concept “women” in the words studied.

In the second study, instead of focusing on words for people, the team looked at words denoting central features of this concept, specifically words for features which generally describe what people look like. They compared hundreds of characteristic words identified in previous research as common descriptors of people (for example, “extroverted”, “analytical” and “superstitious”) to the same word lists for women and for men in the initial study of the article.

They found that the meaning of these descriptor words in the second study was, overall, closer to the meaning of the words for men than to the meaning of the words for women, with a statistically significant difference between the two. That is, common words that describe what people are (e.g., “extrovert”) are also used more similarly to words for men than to words for women.

In a third study, researchers investigated the use of verbs—a reasonable exploration area given the initial results. Specifically, if the collective concept “people” overlaps more with the concept “men” than with the concept “women”, then the words that describe what people do and what is done to them (for example, “love” , “bore”) may also be more likely to be similar in contextual meaning to words referring to men than to words referring to women.

In this study, they compared the similarities in meaning between more than 250 verbs that describe actions that people take (for example, “facilitate”, “smile”, and “threaten”) and words for men compared to words for women.

Similar to the second study, which looked at common words that describe what people are like, words that describe what people do (e.g., “running”) were also used more similarly to words for men. than to words for women – a difference that was again statistically significant.


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