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

Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.

The answer to the question, “Can Bias Be Defeated?” is, fortunately for us, a resounding “Yes!”  The purpose of this three-part series has been to survey the research that brings us this good news.

In part II, for example, we discussed a study conducted by Professor William Cunningham of the University of Toronto. Cunningham re-visited the work of earlier researchers who had identified a “wariness” spike in the brain when white people were asked to view black faces.  This spike in brain activity amounts to a primitive “jumping to conclusions” about the nature of people different from ourselves – in short, it is what might be termed an “instinctive bias.”

I am happy to report that Cunningham discovered that this instinctive bias is far from inevitable. He demonstrated that the rational brain – if given enough time – has the power to override even our most primitive “biased” instincts.

The Study:Asparagus

Professor Susan Fiske of Princeton University brings us a similarly optimistic outlook. She, too, took a new approach to the old “wariness spike” experiments. That approach produced results that, if paired with Cunningham’s findings, has very practical implications for our ability to minimize bias.

By the way, you will notice that all the studies discussed in this series focus on unconscious bias between white and black subjects. It would be fascinating to do the same work around other kinds of biases – gender bias, people with disabilities, ethnic bias, etc. Although, of course, we can’t know for certain until such research is completed, but my guess is that the results would be much the same.

Professor Fiske’s approach was to have white volunteers look at black faces in a year book. Fiske and her team, having examined previous studies, expected to see a spike of activity in the amygdale of the brain – that portion that is responsible for wariness —  but, much to their surprise, found it wasn’t there. Fiske concluded that the brain failed to send out a message of fear because of the nature of the instructions her team gave each volunteer and, in turn, the state of mind they created in the observer.

The key element in these instructions was that each volunteer was asked, not merely to look at the face and react to it, but to guess about several traits that the individual depicted might possess. For example, they were asked to guess whether or not the person was fond of a particular vegetable. A silly question? Of course, but that silly question – that involvement of the brain in looking at this person as an individual, not just as a member of a group – had an almost magical impact on the observer’s response.

The volunteers in Fiske’s study had no threat response because there was, in their minds, no group by which to be threatened. They were faced, not by a monolithic and threatening “black” population, but by an individual human being with individual tastes (in vegetables no less!) and preferences.

Professor Fiske’s Conclusion:

Great News: We have control over how we look at people and, therefore, what we see.  It is possible to change our thinking so that we see people as individuals not just as members of a larger and possibly threatening group. In short, our biases – our “inflexible beliefs” – weaken when faced with the task of evaluating someone individually. That effort inhibited what Professor Fiske calls “category-based emotional responses.”

Workplace Application:

What does this mean for the workplace and for the strategies we might employ to minimize the implicit  biases that compromise teams, reduce productivity, and result in costly litigation?  If we were having this discussion in a workshop, it would be fascinating to kick around ideas about what structures or activities could be put in place to encourage team members to evaluate and relate to people as individuals.  Here are just a couple of ideas to get you started:

1.  Set up affinity/networking groups consisting of people of diverse backgrounds. The group might have in common something like job function, personal hobbies, single parenting responsibilities or any other shared concern or interest.

Make as part of the group’s charter that it must function together to fulfill a common goal. This might be a business goal for the organization, a charitable goal, or a shared personal goal. The very act of striving for a common end will force members to uncover each other’s unique skills, preferences, and values, and, in turn, to look at each other as individuals rather then as members of a group that is different from themselves.

2.  Facilitate workshop activities that emphasize individuality.

Of course, when it comes to making diversity work, we must honor and acknowledge the preferences and viewpoints of diverse “groups” of people.  At the same time, we must balance that emphasis on group values with a focus on individual qualities and needs. What does my colleague care about? What might we have in common? What unique interests does she have? By encouraging this looking at each other as individuals, we put in motion Professor Fiske’s finding that individual observation just might short-circuit automatic, and almost invariably, negative bias.

These are just a couple of ideas that can go far to shifting how we think and derailing that primitive response that screams, “They are different from me, they are all alike, they are threatening in some way!”  My challenge to you this month is to explore other ideas for bringing about this important shift of thinking and, thereby, enhancing respect, productivity, and team work in your organization.

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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