“I’m not biased,” came the student’s insistent response. “I see everyone the same.”
“No, you don’t. You just aren’t aware of your biases and that is even more dangerous,” was my response. Okay, so “dangerous” may be a bit extreme for most situations but simply saying to me you don't have anything filtering your view doesn’t mean there isn't anything there impeding your judgment. It’s like looking through a screen door. If you stand too close, you don’t see the wire grid. If you stand further back, you will clearly see the screen over-top your view.
Facing the things we may not like in ourselves
This student’s response is not that uncommon. When bringing up biases in class, students sit up straighter in their chairs and get a defensive look in their eyes. People don’t like to admit or even face their biases. They are afraid that having biases makes them bad people. However, having biases is just a consequence of being human. They most often come about as part of our socialization, culture, and past experiences -- whether we want them or actively choose them to be there or not.
To ignore your biases or to be afraid to confront them isn’t the wisest choice. When you are aware of your often-hidden perceptions, you can deal with them and keep them from negatively impacting your judgment when they come up. Becoming more aware of your biases is the first step in becoming less likely to act on them or to let them influence your decisions in negative ways.
The best way I’ve found to show people some of their initial biases is to send them to the Project Implict ® website. Project Implicit is available through Harvard and has a series of tests to help you see several of your biases in an objective and measurable way. I encourage you to check out the link below to take some of the tests:
Awareness isn't enough, however
Just being aware of your bias isn't enough. When looking at the research, people often still make decisions based on their biases -- even after they learn what they are. There is a second step needed.
The most popular study around this is the resume experiment where academics were sent resumes for job applicants that were identical except for the gender of the names. Even when being told they were taking part in a bias study, the resume selectors were more likely to choose the resume with a male name over the same resume with a female name. This held true -- with the exception of one department -- whether the resume selector was a man or a woman.
What we learn from this is that the awareness is not enough. It has been shown that when people know their bias, they must specifically remind themselves of that bias directly before making their related decision. In the case of the resume example, the self-reminder statement would be, "I am aware that I have a bias toward male applicants. I will not let my bias influence my current decision."
This self-reminder method is shown to work effectively in helping someone reduce their bias when making decisions.
Be open – even to seeing things you may not like about yourself
As homework, take the Project Implicit test using the link above and think about your results. The first step is not to be afraid to see your biases and to know what they are. The second is to remind yourself of your biases using specific statements before making any decision that could be impacted by them.
Be aware and grow.
Fridays – Flaws in Thinking
There are some common errors in thinking (more formally called cognitive distortions and biases) that can get in the way of healthy and helpful thinking. Each Friday, you will learn a new term to help in seeing your own thinking more clearly.
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