Got Bias?

March 18, 2013 7 Comments

A big shout out to our colleagues at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. Their recently released report “State of the Science: Implicit Bias Review 2013” reviews what science can tell us about what implicit bias is and how it works, why it matters and how to reduce it. Here’s a quick recap:

Implicit bias results from the way our brains process data and experience. We’re wired for pattern recognition and our    brains use lots of shortcuts to make sense of the world around us. In and of itself, this isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing. But, so many of the implicit associations we make are laden with stereotypes—say, between women and family, vs. men and careers. (Check out the Project Implicit to explore your implicit biases.) We absorb these associations from the world around us and they become part of our unconscious “operating system.”

One of the hardest things to accept about implicit bias is that operates even when we consciously ascribe to unbiased beliefs and associations. In fact, studies of judges found that they consistently rate themselves in the top 50% of the bias distribution, even though they actually demonstrate bias consistent with the population at large. (Think Lake Wobegone, “where are all children are above average!”) Such a profession-wide lack of self-awareness would be noteworthy all by itself. But, studies also show that those who estimated their bias as low actually exhibited the most biased decision-making. In other words, those who think they have the least need to check themselves actually need to check themselves the most. But they don’t, because they don’t think they need to.

The study points out many serious, real-world consequences of implicit bias. There’s a strong connection between individual thoughts and behavior on the one hand, and larger social systems and structures on the other. Here are just a few facts to ponder:

  • We’ve known at least since Jane Elliot’s Brown Eyes Blue Eyes experiments in 1968 that students tend to fulfill their teachers’ expectations of their performance. So when teachers live out a bias that connects white students with “good students” and students of color with  “bad students,” those students perform accordingly, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • On a lighter note, while only 5% of US men are over six feet tall, 85% of CEOs are over six feet tall. And, the last shorter-than-average US President was President McKinley, elected in 1896!
  • In a study on gender discrimination, job applicants who negotiated on their own behalf were considered in a positive light if they were men. Women exhibiting the same behaviors were given negative ratings. This same study showed that the likelihood of using stereotypical thinking increased as the level of social power increased.
  • The Kirwan review points to a rich literature about racialized differences in medical diagnosis and treatment, driven by implicit associations about who gets what kinds of diseases and who is more likely to follow through with treatments. Worth noting is that in one study, African American doctors did not exhibit bias toward whites or blacks, while women doctors tended to demonstrate fewer biases than men doctors.
  • The Kirwan review spells out in useful detail the ways that implicit bias enters into every stage of the criminal justice system, from policing to detention, to the behavior of judges, juries, and lawyers, to prisons. A bit of good to news in this section: police officers who had positive personal contacts with black people were more likely to have positive attitudes about black people and about the criminality or violence of black suspects than other officers.

All of this would be kind of depressing if we didn’t also know that there were effective ways to access and change unconscious bias. There’s actually a pretty simple formula:

 Awareness + Concern about the effects + Applying debiasing strategies = Habits Broken

When we are (1) aware of unconscious bias in general and reflective about our own biases, (2) concerned about the effects of unconscious bias on ourselves, others and society, and (3) actively applying debiasing strategies, we can break the unconscious, habitual patterns of thought and create new unbiased or less-biased associations.

Here are a few of the debiasing strategies highlighted in the review. Some of this will come as no surprise (though possibly a relief to know that science is backing up common wisdom).

  • Awareness Training – shining the light on unconscious bias makes a difference; we can’t change what we can’t see or understand
  • Intergroup Contact – engaging with people unlike ourselves in situations that involve meaningful activity, the possibility for counter-stereotypic experiences, and peer interactions works
  • Counter Stereotyping – thinking about people who counter their group’s stereotypes (whether personal acquaintances or public and historic figures) helps to reduce bias (All those posters of women engineers and black scientists in schools are there for a reason!)
  • Policy Change – working toward change in organizations and society create new spaces for people to engage
  • Foster Inclusion and Egalitarian Motives – working toward an inclusive society, where people are invested in one another’s success, also creates space for biases to be undone
  • Accountability – when people know they may have to explain their decisions, they exhibit less bias
  • Taking the Other’s Perspective and Considering Similarities – as every spiritual tradition teaches, looking at situation from another’s vantage point reduces bias, as does the exercise of focusing on what others have in common with us rather than focusing on their differences
  • Deliberative Processing – a fancy way of saying “paying attention to our thinking;” in other words, examined thinking is less biased than unexamined thinking

All of these debiasing strategies are good work and we encourage you to keep doing them. They will make us all better people and a better society. It’s all-two-both!


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