Can Bias Be Defeated?: What the Research Reveals — Part I

Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.

“Biases are deep-rooted; there’s nothing we can do except work around them. It’s hopeless.”  “We can’t stop bias. We’ll just have to wait for this generation to die off and a new one to come along.” “Human beings are so afraid of difference that we use bias as an in-born coping strategy; there’s not a darn thing we can do about it.”

For those who know my work, it won’t surprise you to hear that I disagree with all of these well-meaning pessimists. I, and most of those doing research in this area, firmly believe that, with a little perseverance and a little courage, all but the most deeply-rooted biases can be defeated.

We are, after all, not born biased. There is no genetic predisposition to bias, no bias gene rides on our chromosomes, there is no DNA test that can identify who is biased and who is not. Bias is learned. It is an acquired habit of thought rooted in fear and fueled by conditioning and, as such, can be unacquired and deconditioned. Sure, some biases are so deeply imbedded in the mosaic of culture that it would take a jackhammer to dislodge them, but most of the biases that permeate our workplaces today are more superficially held and, therefore, a ready target for extinction.

In fact, since the focus of my work is to provide the skills for bringing about this happy outcome, it occurred to me that it would be helpful to take a step back and examine some of the latest research that testifies to the fact that most biases can indeed be defeated. Toward that end, each of the three articles in this series will highlight a separate piece of research along with a commentary on how the results can be applied in the workplace.

The Study:

In this article, I’d like to discuss a study conducted by evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban. Dr. Kurzban’s work was conducted with colleagues at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The purpose of the project was to discover if human beings have the power to shift how they classify people or if we are doomed to view the world through a filter of pre-programmed and pre-conditioned biases. In Dr. Kurzban’s work, the emphasis was on skin color and race, but, as you look at his findings, remember that this principle of implicit bias reduction can apply to all types of diversity and all types of bias.

Here’s how the study was conducted. It was divided into four parts. First, 200 volunteers were asked to look at 24 photos of basketball players on a computer screen. Although the players wore identical uniforms, the subjects were told that each athlete belonged to one of two teams – two teams, in fact, that had recently been embroiled in a brawl on the court. Each photo was paired with a sentence that had been said by the player pictured.Basketball Game

In the second part of the study, the volunteers were asked to look at the photos without the accompanying sentence and, from memory, match statements on a list to the appropriate players. In the course of making these matches, many mistakes were made. The interesting element in this outcome was the nature of those mistakes: When the subject paired the statement to the wrong player, it was usually to a person of the same race as the player who actually had said the quote.

Parts three and four consisted of a repetition of one and two, but with one key difference. This time, the players pictured were wearing either gray or yellow jerseys. When shown the quotes paired with photos and then later asked to recall the matches, there were still errors. This time, however, there was an important difference: Wrong statements were attributed, not to a person of the same skin color as the actual speaker, but to someone wearing the same jersey.

Dr. Kurzban’s Conclusion: 

The human mind is remarkably flexible. Even though all of the subjects had spent a lifetime immersed in the notion of skin color as an important “category” of human being, it took just a few minutes of exposure to an optional classification for them shift to another system. In short, Kurzban’s work demonstrates that the biases we hold – the categories we are accustomed to using – can be changed.

Workplace Application:

This result – this proof of flexibility – is extremely good news for us all. What it means is that our collective and individual efforts at bias reduction will not go unrewarded. For example, in Chapter seven of my book, Making Diversity Work,  I discuss the bias reduction value of forming common “kinship groups” across racial, ethnic, and gender lines. We see there that equal and goal focused exposure to people different from ourselves tends to create in our minds new definitions of who qualifies as “us” and who as “them.” This re-qualification, in turn, forces us to shift how we categorize our colleagues and team members.

Like Kurzban’s volunteers who shifted their thinking from race with its accompanying danger of full-blown racism to the innocuous category of jersey color, we, too – through mixed affinity groups, shared goals, and creative interaction – can change how we classify people. No longer must we see an individual solely as gay, solely as using a wheelchair, or solely as from another culture. We have the power to begin to notice, not only their uniqueness, but also the ways in which are alike – and that, we all know, is the first step toward defeating our biases.

Food for thought…….

The material in this article is based on Sondra’s book, Making Diversity Work: Seven Steps for Defeating Bias in the Workplace and in her video training package, Is It Bias: Making Diversity Work.

Sondra Thiederman can be contacted for webinars and in-person presentations by clicking here or calling 619-583-4478. For additional information, go to www.thiederman.com.

© copyright 2013 Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.

Feel free to re-print as long as copyright and web site (www.thiederman.com) information is attached.

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