Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.
Every two years, my husband and I get a new puppy. These aren’t ordinary puppies, but very special ones that we are raising as potential assistance dogs for people with disabilities. In most ways, raising assistance dogs is fun and extremely gratifying. It is, at the same time, a perpetual exercise in changing perceptions and morphing realities.
The process begins with the excitement of receiving each new puppy, the optimism when you see – or imagine you see – a desire to please in the eyes, the thrill when she does that first “sit” and, more important, the second one. “My, how smart she is,” we blither to our friends somehow forgetting that nine-week-old dogs do sit down a lot and that she was probably contemplating a nice rest on her own just as you coincidentally demanded, “Rye, sit.”
From excitement to optimism to frustration to hope and back again, it is “process” in the truest sense; no guaranteed success, no firm guideposts to cling to, no linear progress on which to hang our hopes. One day you think you have it licked, the next that progress seems to disappear.
Come to think of it – that’s just what happens when we struggle to get rid of our biases. One day we see the world and its people unfiltered and accurately, the next that pesky bias pops up to distort our view, our decisions, and our relationships.
It’s All about Context
I’ll let you in on a little secret about dog training. Just because a dog does a command in one setting does not mean it will do it in another. Dogs, you see, don’t generalize very well from one context to another. Neither do biases. One reason for the reappearance of a bias – and for the apparent disappearance in a puppy’s brain of the knowledge of a simple command – is that we fail to test them both in enough different situations.
Let’s say, for example, that you used to harbor a bias – an “inflexible belief about a particular category of people” – against folks who use wheelchairs or had emigrated from Mexico or who fall into the category of “white male executive.” Let’s further say that you were lucky enough to get to know members of these groups in your workplace and, because you were able to see them as individuals with unique characteristics, your bias disappeared. Or did it? It’s easy to be unbiased toward your friends or co-workers whom you know so well as individuals and with whom you have good relationships. What happens, though, when you venture into another social circle or department or neighborhood?
Similarly, each new puppy can deliver a pristine “sit” complete with perky ears and heart-melting eye contact in my kitchen. At those moments, it is tempting to say that she has the command down cold. Or does she? As a volunteer Puppy Raiser, I know to test the dog’s knowledge and give her the “sit” command on the sidewalk in front of our house. Most often, I will then be met, not by a nice neat sit, but, instead, by a still endearing but completely blank stare.
The trick with the dog training is to try the command in several settings. The same is true of biases. We will never know for sure if they are truly gone unless we test them around a variety of people. The good news is that this increased exposure serves, not only to establish whether the bias is gone, but also to create an opportunity for experiences with a number of unique individuals.
Your bias, and your dog, is always learning. For the dog, each experience carries in it a lesson. It might be a positive one that goes something like this: “If I sit when my human tells me to, I get a treat. That’s a good thing so I’ll keep doing that.” On the negative side, she might also learn this lesson: “Gee I like chewing on this couch. Chewing is fun. I think I’ll do this every chance I get.” (You can tell I’ve had this experience.)
Biases function in a similar way. Every exposure and every experience teaches our bias something. The implication of this continuous learning is that we benefit by constantly exposing ourselves and our bias to people of all backgrounds. The more variety of experiences we have, the more our bias will weaken. Admittedly, from time to time, we will encounter a person whose characteristics reinforce our bias – after all, the content of our biases had to originate somewhere. When this happens, remind yourself that any experience with just one person or one small group of people is in no way evidence that “all” members of the group are alike.
If you are a people manager, you have no doubt learned the importance of providing positive feedback when a team member does something right. Well, in that regard, dogs are just like human beings; they respond to being praised for what they do right as readily as to being corrected for what they do wrong. The trick is to pay attention to the desirable behavior. Let’s face it, it’s a lot easier to notice that the puppy is squealing in the crate and issue a reprimand than to react to the fact that the dog is quiet and praise it.
You guessed it – the same principle applies to biases. We have a tendency to punish ourselves when we notice a biased response – mostly by feeling guilty and inadequate. When it comes to those times, however, when we see a person clearly without the lense of bias distorting our view, we fail to notice it and, in turn, fail to feel good about the progress we have made. In short, we need to catch ourselves doing something right and allow ourselves the positive reinforcement of feeling just plain good about it.
© copyright 2013 Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.
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