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

Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.

Here’s the question currently on the table: Can biases be defeated? Can we really execute actions that cause biases to dissolve or are we stuck with them forever? Is our only option to be aware of our implicit biases and struggle to make our lives work despite their constant intrusion on our decision-making abilities?

As pointed out in Part I of this three-part series, the good news is that there is no “bias gene” that rides on our chromosomes – in other words, there is a great deal that each of us can do to minimize the biases that distort our vision, damage our lives, and create havoc in the workplace.

In Part I, for example, we discussed research done at the University of California. That study (conducted, sports fans, by the way, in the context of basketball) concluded that the categories – the biases – we use to classify people are quite easily shifted from, for example, race to the color of a uniform. This ability to shift categories means that efforts to help people change their labeling of those who are different from themselves from the category of “them” to the category of “us”(in other words to focus on what they have in common) can go far to creating more harmonious and productive organizations.

The  Study:

The research conducted by Professor William Cunningham of the University of Toronto takes a different approach. Cunningham’s work grew out of previous studies on the role of the brain in generating instinctive “biased” responses to different groups. Addressing race and racism, these earlier studies show that when white people view pictures of black faces, the region of the brain that is responsible for wariness (the amygdale), responds with a sharp spike in activity. This physical reaction gave rise to the view that biases – apprehension when encountering all members of a given group – are part of our hard-wiring and, therefore, could not be changed.

What Professor Cunningham did was modify how these studies were done; a small change that produced dramatically different results.  In the earlier studies, the faces were shown for only 30 milliseconds – so quickly that they could only be “seen” subconsciously. Cunningham decided to find out what would happen if the pictures were viewed for a longer period of time — 525 milliseconds. This longer viewing time also produced a spike in brain activity, but with a key difference. The spike appeared in a different location, namely, in the part of the brain that controls rational thought and reflexive response.

Professor Cunningham’s Conclusion:

In sum, the rational brain was able to override the prejudicial response that would have otherwise come from the amygdale. As Professor Cunningham put it, “If people have a chance, they can override the emotional response with the cognitive regions of the brain.”

Workplace Application:

This conclusion – that the rational brain has the ability to counteract our knee-jerk “biased” responses – sends an obvious message that has immediate application in the workplace: We must give our rational brain a chance to get in gear before reacting instinctively to someone who is different from ourselves. Cunningham’s work shows us that just one extra “beat” taken before we act, just one extra deep breath, can mean the difference between a biased-decision and the ability to see people, not as categories, but as valued and unique individuals.

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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