Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.
“It felt so good to believe I had my prejudices beat and then, all of a sudden, just because I had an encounter with one person who conformed to my bias, I found myself making those old inflexible assumptions all over again.”
“I thought it was gone for good,” said Michelle. “As long as I can remember, I believed all white people were prejudiced – each and every one. Then I made a real effort to dump this bias and began to realize how wrong I was. Just last week, however, I read about a horrible hate crime and it all came flooding back.”
“‘All gay men are artistic,’ ‘all men are sexist,’ and ‘all Asians are good at math’ – these were biases that I held for years and thought had finally been defeated. I’m still pretty good when it comes to the first two, but, having met several Asian colleagues lately that put my math skills to shame, I find myself assuming that I was right about their in-born talents all along.”
Clearly these three people are frustrated; frustrated because they have all gone through a systematic process for defeating their biases only to find them coming back to life at the most inopportune times.
Here’s the good news: When biases reappear, it doesn’t mean we are back to square one. Think of bias reduction as a two steps forward, one step backward process.
Vulnerable to Relapse
In order to understand what to do when a bias reappears, we need to grasp why human beings are so vulnerable to these relapses. The main reason for this susceptibility is that we don’t want to give up the bias in the first place. Like a child who wants to stay home from school for just one more day, there are lots of reasons why we might not want to recover from our bias. Maybe we don’t want to betray or question the parents who planted the bias in the first place, perhaps we cling to the misbelief because it is like an old shoe that has molded itself into the shape of our thinking and is just too comfortable to take off. Most of all, we resist recovery because we are all a little bit in love with our biases.
Like most bad habits, bias has its perks. When we drink alcohol, we feel high. Chocolate tastes good. Smoking calms us down. When we give up those bad habits, let’s be honest, we lose something. When biases are abandoned, we lose, or think we lose, lots of things. Most of all, when we let go of a bias, we lose a false sense of security and enter a frightening and ambiguous world of the real. We are forced to break out of a cocoon of bigotry that is warm and safe (and stifling and stuffy) and enter a more open place where we risk an unpleasant sensation of vulnerability.
Individual Encounters & What to Do About Them
Nothing can resurrect a bias faster than encountering several people who actually conform to what we believe. This happens because biases come from somewhere; someone at some time must have had the characteristics that we turn into biases or this whole bias business never would have gotten going in the first place. When you find yourself confronted with someone who confirms your bias and you can hear your old nemesis knocking at the door, try these steps:
1. Remind yourself that any one encounter or incident applies only to the specific individuals involved.
2. Ask yourself: Where did I learn this bias in the first place? Was it a reliable source or a misguided and frightened parent? Was it through systematic study (which of course it would not be) or through a few random encounters, rampant rumor, or the media?
3. Examine the encounter to see whether your own state of mind caused you to see a characteristic that wasn’t there. Perhaps, for example, you were behind deadline on a project so experienced your colleague as slow and lazy when, in fact, you were feeling so stressed and impatient that any pace would have been too plodding for you.
4. Ask yourself: Did I do something to create the expected behavior or was it there in the first place?
5. Ask yourself: How many people do I actually know who conform to my bias? If you have been exposing yourself sufficiently to diverse members of the group and forcing yourself to see them the way they really are, you will no doubt find plenty of examples that you can use to drive the bias back out the door.
Fortunately for us, serious research demonstrates that biases can indeed be defeated. However, because the process involves the foibles and vagaries of the human thought process, it is not an absolute science. Hard introspective work can pay off but the results will become permanent only if we remain vigilant to the environmental temptations and internal foibles that can all-too-quickly lead us back into faulty ways of perceiving those around us.
Resuscitating Events & How to Diffuse Them
Another reason biases re-appear is the occurrence of a dramatic event involving the object of your bias. Events, you see, have a way of being so vivid in our minds that they shine a dark light on the soil of our sub-conscious, warming it just enough to bring to life the dormant seed of bias. Up it pops, just a sprig, but sufficiently healthy to start us once again down the road to destructive habits of thought. The attack, for example, on London’s Underground in July of 2005 tragically caused a renewal of bias against Muslims and Arabs.
Bias renewing events do not, however, need to be as grandiose as the bombing of one of the world’s greatest cities. Riots, a murder, employee layoffs, a publicized sexual harassment suit, or a case of violence in the workplace can unlock dormant fears. Once that fear is set free, there is the danger of it being directed, not at the actual perpetrators of the crime, but at those around us who resemble the players in that event; a bias is reborn.
The way to counter the effect of such occurrences is to undertake a deliberate, immediate, and systematic examination of the event. This inquiry is ultimately after the answer to one question: What do you REALLY know about what happened?
In order to get to that answer, more specific questions need to be asked. What these questions are depends, of course, on the nature of the event, but these examples will give you some direction:
1. If the event resuscitates the inflexible generality that all members of a particular group are biased, ask yourself: Did you actually hear the person say a racist (or sexist or homophobic) comment or was it reported second hand? Did you hear the statement in context or was it an isolated sound bite?
2. If the event resuscitates a bias that certain groups are violent, ask yourself: Has the perpetrator been proven guilty or is guilt just alleged?
3. If the event resuscitates a belief that certain groups get preferential treatment, ask yourself: Do you really know that the woman got the promotion because of her gender? Do you know the whole truth about why the Latinos were allowed to leave work early or did you just hear one side of the story?
As manager, it is your job, not only to watch for your own recurrences of bias, but to bring reason and rationality to the workplace on the occasion of a resuscitating event. In the tragic case of an outbreak of war, a class action suit, or any other happening that might renew bias, you must see to it that rumors are researched, facts corrected, and the event brought into perspective. Only then will we see a different kind of light – a light that illuminates the truth rather than one that cultivates distorted thinking and destructive patterns of 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.
© copyright 2013 Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.
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