How to Identify Your Own Bias and Interrupt it in 10 Steps
Everybody’s biased. The truth is, we all harbor unconscious assumptions that can get in the way of our good intentions and keep us from building authentic relationships with people different from ourselves. My co-author and I use vivid stories and fun (yes, fun!) exercises and activities to help you reflect on your personal experiences and uncover how your hidden biases are formed. By becoming more self-aware, we can control knee-jerk reactions, conquer fears of the unknown, and prevail over closed-mindedness. In the end, our central message is that you are not the problem — but you can be the solution.
Here is an excerpt from the book, Overcoming Bias: Building Authentic Relationships Across Differences:
Chapter One: What is bias and why does it matter?
If you’re a man, or you have men in your life, here’s some news you can use: grow a beard. Seriously. Men with beards are seen as more trustworthy. Two men advertising the same product, one with a beard and one without, make customers feel differently. The fact is, bearded salesmen sell more stuff. Most people would tell you beards on spokesmen don’t sway them, but they’d be wrong. Why? Because our brains have subtle preferences that we don’t even know about. Americans, it turns out, have a pro-beard bias.
As a cultural ally, someone who seeks to expand their understanding of others and use it for good, you probably have a sense of what bias is. Many people know it when they see it, but can’t define it very well. Here is a simple definition to prevent any confusion:
• Bias is the tendency to favor one thing over another.
What types of things might a person favor over another? Well, anything really — a person might prefer certain flavors, colors, textures, sports, cities, teams, etc. No one really gets bent out of shape over flavor bias. One of this book’s coauthors, Tiffany, can’t stand spicy flavors.
“I just don’t like them. Spicy food hurts, it burns and stings, and I do not find eating it a pleasant experience at all. When I try to go with the flow and enjoy spicy food like all of the happy spice eaters around me, I feel like I am entering some sort of twisted endurance challenge. Will my bias against spicy food ever make front-page news? Probably not. Will it ever ruin a relationship? Not likely, but it could cause some strain depending on how aggressively I choose to pursue my sweeter, more bland taste. But you get the idea.”
• Bias is a natural, normal human tendency.
People are only biased because that is how we are hardwired. The scientists who study human behavior believe that bias exists as a human survival mechanism. If our brains could not, within a split second, tell the difference between an angry lion and a harmless gazelle, we would not have lasted long as a species. And so our brain has evolved to make snap decisions based on making sense of what we see in the blink of an eye. So please don’t judge your biased friends, family, or colleagues too harshly. The people around you are human and are designed to have bias. Our job as cultural allies is to find whatever opportunities we can to help people see their bias (because no one really wants to name or claim their bias).
• Most bias is harmless.
So here is the rub. We don’t care about each other’s favorite color or bias toward a particular travel destination. We are certain you have already guessed it. The bias minefield is wherever someone has a bias about people. If you want to see all hell break loose, express bias about a person or group of people who share some sort of similarity. Depending upon who is listening, you can get yourself in all sorts of trouble. Interpersonal or intergroup bias is exactly what makes headlines. Expressing bias toward or against people and acting on that bias gets people fired.
• It is really hard to acknowledge personal bias.
That, too, is not anyone’s fault. OK, maybe we can blame that on society at large. Who the heck wants to stand up and say, “Hey, look over here! I am totally biased against ____________”? (Fill in the blank with something about people, then duck as the arrows come flying toward you.) We have made it dangerous for people to tell the truth about their thoughts, whether conscious or subconscious. In our highly politicized society, people have even taken heat for acknowledging past biases. In 2010, Shirley Sherrod was fired from her position with the Department of Agriculture after a politically conservative blog selectively edited a speech of hers to make it sound as if she was biased against white people. In fact, she had done the admirable task of acknowledging that traumatic childhood experiences with white people had influenced her in ways that she became aware of and uncomfortable with. She was telling her story of overcoming bias — which was selectively edited and used to get her fired. The Obama administration apologized and offered her a job, which she ultimately declined. This story, though, demonstrates how hard it is to acknowledge even a former bias you have worked hard to set aside.
So if and when someone near you lets some bias show, let’s have a little compassion and see if we can help them, not hurt them. If you want to have a little fun and test yourself and your friends for bias, here is an easy activity for you. Just remember, everyone has bias. So don’t feel bad when you discover your own biases, and tell your friends not to beat themselves up about it when they do as well. Acknowledging it is the first step.
The 10 exercises in the book include Job Association, Harvard’s Implicit Association Test, Personalization, Devil’s Advocate, Get out of the Zone (described briefly in the second video above), The Power of Privilege TEDx Talk, Diversity Inventory, Cultural Inventory, Question Your Assumptions, and Listening Lunch.