Take a minute to sit with that title. Its meaning is far more significant than just a play on words. In fact, the sentence particularly interests me because it is directly related to how our biases – our “inflexible beliefs about particular categories of people” – get in the way of seeing our colleagues, our customers, and even our friends accurately.
What it basically means is that, once we believe something – in this case about the traits of a group of people – we fall victim to what is called “confirmation bias.” The idea is simple, but dangerous: When we have a confirmation bias, we automatically notice the evidence that confirms our belief. Here’s how it works.
Step I: We acquire an inflexible belief about a category of people. Let’s say, for example, you grew up in a community where adults looked down on immigrants. The comments your elders made sent a clear message to your young brain that those who don’t speak English like native-born Americans are somehow lacking in knowledge and education. Or, alternatively, let’s say you grew up surrounded with the message that people whom our culture says are overweight are automatically lazy and lacking in energy. Eventually you began to believe – even subconsciously – that this was the case.
The Result: Two biases firmly in place.
Step II: Once a bias is in place, the real mischief begins. When we encounter a member of the group about which we have a bias, our mind automatically – and without our knowledge – notices behaviors that support the bias. For example, as we listen to a colleague present an idea with a heavy accent, we notice the small errors and slippage in logic. Or, when we encounter a person whom we think is overweight, we notice when they take a seat in a room where most are standing or stop to rest when carrying heavy packages up a staircase.
The Result: The distortion begins, but wait, it gets worse!
Step III: Not only do we more quickly notice the data that supports our belief, we are more apt to remember that conforming data and to pass it on.
The Result: The perpetuation and spread of a biased belief.
Step IV: Not only do we notice those elements that conform to our bias, we don’t notice the features that run counter to our belief. We don’t notice, for example, the innovative strategy our immigrant colleague highlights in his presentation. We don’t notice – or we conveniently forget – the fact that our heavier colleague regularly takes the stairs at work.
The Result: What a mess!
Fortunately, there is a two-stage solution process that will help you fight this confirmation bias.
Stage I: Become aware of your bias so you can control it. In many cases, this is far simpler than it seems. Sure, there are some biases that are so deeply rooted, it takes a lifetime – if then – to get a handle on them, but most of the biases that afflict us constantly toss out clues to their existence in the form of thoughts, actions, and decisions.
With respect to our thoughts, all it requires is us being vigilant to the first assumption that pops into your brain when encountering a member of the group about which we have a bias. Take a look at this blog post to learn more about how this works.
When it comes to our actions and decisions, take a moment to analyze – even quantify – the decisions you have made about this group. Do you tend to hire those who are not in the group? With whom do you socialize? You can even involve your friends and colleagues in this process by asking them to partner with you in respectfully spotting each other’s biases. Click for more information on what I call “Bias-Spotter Partnerships”.
Stage II: Once you are aware of your bias, you have the power to take on the role of a skilled sceptic. You will be able to notice your first assumptions about a group and ask yourself if what you see is accurate or, alternatively, if it is a distortion created by your bias. Get in the habit of stopping and thinking, “Hmmmm…..I wonder….am I seeing what the person accurately or is this a case of seeing what I expect to see?”
The answer might just surprise you.
The material in this post reflects the ideas expressed in Dr. Thiederman’s book 3 Keys to Defeating Unconscious Bias and in the training videos Defeating Unconscious Bias: 5 Strategies and Gateways to Inclusion: Turning Tense Moments into Productive Conversations.
Sondra Thiederman can be contacted for virtual presentations and panel participation by e-mailing her here or calling 619-583-4478. For additional information, go to the Meet Sondra page on this site.
© copyright 2020 Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.
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