Overcoming Bias

Building Authentic Relationships Across Differences

Tiffany Jana (Author) | Matthew Freeman (Author)

Publication date: 10/05/2016

Overcoming Bias
Control, Conquer, and Prevail!

Everybody's biased. The truth is, we all harbor unconscious assumptions that can get in the way of our good intentions and keep us from building authentic relationships with people different from ourselves. Tiffany Jana and Matthew Freeman use vivid stories and fun (yes, fun!) exercises and activities to help us reflect on our personal experiences and uncover how our hidden biases are formed. By becoming more self-aware, we can control knee-jerk reactions, conquer fears of the unknown, and prevail over closed-mindedness. In the end, Jana and Freeman's central message is that you are
not the problem—but you can be the solution.

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Overview

Control, Conquer, and Prevail!

Everybody's biased. The truth is, we all harbor unconscious assumptions that can get in the way of our good intentions and keep us from building authentic relationships with people different from ourselves. Tiffany Jana and Matthew Freeman use vivid stories and fun (yes, fun!) exercises and activities to help us reflect on our personal experiences and uncover how our hidden biases are formed. By becoming more self-aware, we can control knee-jerk reactions, conquer fears of the unknown, and prevail over closed-mindedness. In the end, Jana and Freeman's central message is that you are
not the problem—but you can be the solution.

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Meet the Authors


Visit Author Page - Tiffany Jana
Tiffany Jana is the CEO of TMI Portfolio, a collection of companies working to advance inclusive workplaces. TMI Consulting Inc., a TMI Portfolio company, is a 2018 Best for the World B Corporation. Jana is also the coauthor of Overcoming Bias.

Visit Author Page - Matthew Freeman
Matthew Freeman is the cofounder and senior executive consultant at TMI Consulting. He has worked with groups including the National Institutes of Health, the United States Congress, and Initiatives of Change as faculty for their Trustbuilding fellowship in Caux, Switerland He has also worked with dozens of non-profits, religious institutions and banks across the United States.

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Excerpt

Overcoming Bias

Chapter One

What is bias and why does it matter?

If you’re a man, or you have men in your life, here’s some news you can use: grow a beard. Seriously. Men with beards are seen as more trustworthy. Two men advertising the same product, one with a beard and one without, make customers feel differently. The fact is, bearded salesmen sell more stuff.1 Most people would tell you beards on spokesmen don’t sway them, but they’d be wrong. Why? Because our brains have subtle preferences that we don’t even know about. Americans, it turns out, have a pro-beard bias.

As a cultural ally, someone who seeks to expand their understanding of others and use it for good, you probably have a sense of what bias is. Many people know it when they see it, but can’t define it very well. Here is a simple definition to prevent any confusion:

Images Bias is the tendency to favor one thing over another.

What types of things might a person favor over another? Well, anything really—a person might prefer certain flavors, colors, textures, sports, cities, teams, etc. No one really gets bent out of shape over flavor bias. Tiffany, for example, can’t stand spicy flavors.

I just don’t like them. Spicy food hurts, it burns and stings, and I do not find eating it a pleasant experience at all. When I try to go with the flow and enjoy spicy food like all of the happy spice eaters around me, I feel like I am entering some sort of twisted endurance challenge. Will my bias against spicy food ever make frontpage news? Probably not. Will it ever ruin a relationship? Not likely, but it could cause some strain depending on how aggressively I choose to pursue my sweeter, more bland taste. But you get the idea.

Images Bias is a natural, normal human tendency.

People are only biased because that is how we are hardwired. The scientists who study human behavior believe that bias exists as a human survival mechanism. If our brains could not, within a split second, tell the difference between an angry lion and a harmless gazelle, we would not have lasted long as a species. And so our brain has evolved to make snap decisions based on making sense of what we see in the blink of an eye. So please don’t judge your biased friends, family, or colleagues too harshly. The people around you are human and are designed to have bias. Our job as cultural allies is to find whatever opportunities we can to help people see their bias (because no one really wants to name or claim their bias).

Images Most bias is harmless.

So here is the rub. We don’t care about each other’s favorite color or bias toward a particular travel destination. But you have already guessed it: The bias minefield is wherever someone has a bias about people. If you want to see all hell break loose, express bias about a person or group of people who share some sort of similarity. Depending upon who is listening, you can get yourself in all sorts of trouble. Interpersonal or intergroup bias is exactly what makes headlines. Expressing bias toward or against people and acting on that bias gets people fired.

Images It is really hard to acknowledge personal bias.

That, too, is not anyone’s fault. OK, maybe we can blame that on society at large. Who the heck wants to stand up and say, “Hey, look over here! I am totally biased against _______________.” (Fill in the blank with something about people, then duck as the arrows come flying toward you.) We have made it dangerous for people to tell the truth about their thoughts, whether conscious or subconscious. In our highly politicized society, people have even taken heat for acknowledging past biases. In 2010, Shirley Sherrod was fired from her position with the Department of Agriculture after a politically conservative blog selectively edited a speech of hers to make it sound as if she was biased against white people. In fact, she had done the admirable task of acknowledging that traumatic childhood experiences with white people had influenced her in ways that she became aware of and uncomfortable with. She was telling her story of overcoming bias—which was selectively edited and used to get her fired. The Obama administration apologized and offered her a job, which she ultimately declined. Nevertheless, her story demonstrates how hard it is to acknowledge even a former bias you have worked hard to set aside.

So if and when someone near you lets some bias show, let’s have a little compassion and see if we can help them, not hurt them. If you want to have a little fun and test yourself and your friends for bias, here is an easy activity for you. Just remember, everyone has bias. So don’t feel bad when you discover your own biases, and tell your friends not to beat themselves up about it when they do as well. Acknowledging it is the first step.

Activity #1 often elicits stereotypes that people have about the professions listed. Unfortunately, this tendency to stereotype does not stop when we move beyond career choices. If we were to repeat the same exercise with racial, ethnic, gender, or sexual orientation groups, the associations would come just as easily.

Images Stereotypes lead to bias if you believe them.

Stereotypes assume that people who share one characteristic, such as sex or skin color, share all other traits. We all know some: blondes are airheaded, men are aggressive, Americans don’t know anything about other countries. This does not mean that there isn’t any truth to stereotypes; they just can’t be applied to everyone in the group. One of our favorite examples of this is the fact that Fortune 500 CEOs are taller than the average population. It’s true. Look it up. So why are they taller? Well, studies suggest that Fortune 500 CEOs are taller than average because people have a positive bias toward tall people. Height is often associated with power and leadership, so at some point American society stereotyped tall people as better leaders.

A more common stereotype is that Asian people are good at math. We are quite certain that many are good at math. A lot of other people are good at math, too. We are also confident that plenty of Asian people are not good at math. But still, the common stereotype might affect the outcome of a job interview without the hiring manager even realizing it. These stereotypical ideas are often locked deep in the recesses of our minds just waiting to creep up and get in the way of our better judgment, fueling the bias—or automatic preferences—we have for one group over another.

Images If you aren’t aware of the stereotypes you believe, you can’t overcome them.

This kind of unconscious bias is certainly relevant to the politically hot topics of race, gender, and sexual orientation. And evidence shows how our brains lead us to make irrational decisions based on a number of factors. A few examples:

Images Men with beards are considered more trustworthy than clean-shaven men.

Images People with accents that are foreign to us are trusted less than people with accents similar to our own.

Images More people die in female-named hurricanes than in male-named hurricanes, perhaps because people think female names represent less of a threat.

Images A hiring manager who’s holding a warm drink in his or her hand is more likely to hire a job candidate than when interviewing a similar candidate while holding a cold drink.

Activity #1 helps identify unconscious biases. Activity #2 measures different kinds and intensities of bias. Maybe we should have named this book Having Fun with Bias since there are so many games in here! Some people find this topic depressing and intimidating, but you can have fun with it. In fact, if you are planning to intervene and help some of your well-meaning associates dial down their bias, fun is actually a great approach.

Most people try to behave decently and not be racist or sexist. Nevertheless, our brains don’t break the habit of categorizing things when we see people. And so, despite our best intentions, we generalize and rely on mental shortcuts when we deal with people. What thoughtful person wants to determine someone else’s worth based on the color of her skin? Or make promotional decisions because of a candidate’s height? Clearly these criteria are absurd—and yet, we rely on them every day, without even realizing it.

Images Bias can get in the way of our personal goals and intentions.

We assume that if you’re reading this book, you believe in equality and trying to treat people fairly. If so, then you need to know your brain can get in the way. If equality and fairness don’t motivate you, perhaps success and advancement do. Overcoming your bias can help you build better relationships, and those relationships can pave your path to advancement in your career and in life. Thank goodness science is advancing at such a fast pace. If you have a particularly skeptical friend or someone who won’t take anyone but an expert’s word for it, refer her or him to the research we’ve listed in the back of this book.

You have probably noticed all the talk about bias, race, gender, sexual orientation, and the like in the news. Clearly the world is paying attention to the new science and to people’s concerns about how they are being treated. This is a good thing. So why isn’t that enough?

Images Bias can give us blind spots that make it harder to see someone else’s point of view.

Despite the best intentions to treat everyone fairly, bias can give us enormous blind spots. Those blind spots make us unable to see things from another person’s point of view. And when people act on their biases, it creates a downward spiral, where the victims of bias trust others even less. People who are on their guard don’t tend to make friends easily or be particularly warm and fuzzy.

A friend of ours remembers a cross being burned on her family’s property and has painful associations with the Confederate battle flag because the people who did it were open Confederate sympathizers. It is a challenge, given her family history, to trust any fliers of or apologists for that flag. And when she sees someone with a Confederate battle flag sticker on his car, what do you think she feels?

On the other hand, many who fly the Confederate battle flag don’t know or don’t care how it has been used as a symbol of racial terrorism, preferring to focus on their ancestors’ wartime sacrifices. And in this way, disconnection and division are sowed and reaped within our society, as two groups with very different experiences of the same symbol cannot or will not understand each other.

Images Bias can be passed from generation to generation.

The origins of many biases are not a mystery. People are social animals—we depend on the herd for survival. But who is part of our herd? Who is safe, trustworthy? Who will take care of us, and who will hurt us? As babies, our brains memorize the look of the faces around us and think of those that are similar looking as safe for the rest of our lives. What happens when we see people who look different from what we saw growing up? Features that we did not see in childhood register in a different part of the brain, a part more associated with the emotion of fear. Being members of a herd, a tribe, or a group—what we call an “in-group” is hardwired into our brains (see chapter 3). It is essential to our survival as a species. The good news is that our definition of in-group can change. Throughout the rest of this book we will talk about how to shake up the mix of nature and nurture that makes it hard for us to trust people outside of our clan.

Beyond what we see, what we experience also shapes who we become and what we believe. Even our trusted friends’ and family’s personal experiences and biases shape our own biases. In other words, we learned from mom and dad (or who raised us) what kinds of people are trustworthy.

People often hope that the next generation will fix all of the bias-related failures of the previous generations. This is where the playground example comes in. Small children play on the playground with other children without regard for race, color, gender, religion, and so on. Unfortunately, playground politics don’t last. Eventually children notice cues from parents and peers—for example, mom clutching her purse and scurrying the child along when someone suspicious walks too close. Children are programmed to pay attention to these cues. Sometimes the messages are overt—“You are not allowed to play with kids from THAT school”—or there is subtle social pressure from a popular peer to avoid or mistreat certain people. When those overt and subtle messages form a pattern of biased treatment toward or against a specific group—people with disabilities, or a race, sex, or class—biased leanings take root in young minds and follow them through adulthood. The biased people you know often learned their bias from people who raised or mentored them. Sometimes you can help people whose bias slips out just by asking them why they believe what they believe about a person or group of people. You may get a perfectly sensible response. These folks may also dig a deeper and deeper hole with every word as they try to rationalize an irrational bias. Do not laugh. Do not judge. Just listen. You may learn valuable information that can help you help them.

Think about it. Can you recall your parents’ or guardians’ biases? How did their opinions and experiences shape yours? We have a good friend named Manny, born in the 1940s, who recalls his mother locking the car doors when they crossed into the Dakotas on their family road trip. He said, “Mom, why are we locking the doors?” She replied, “Indians. This place is crawling with Indians.” Such parental bias is a strong influence regardless of the decade. And every generation harbors cultural fears. Manny thought the Indians were hiding around the corner to get them. He ultimately became a skilled diversity practitioner and, in doing so, examined his own biases and early influences. We heard this story when Manny, an older white male, shared it in front of dozens of people during diversity training. He used his experience to show that well-meaning people inadvertently share their misperceptions with others, including, and especially, their children. Manny thought Native Americans were to be feared because he received bad information. It is vitally important that we help our friends, family, and colleagues consider the biases they have and the source from which they originated. Does time, context, or a change in personal perspective affect what they believe over time? We think it does, but people don’t stop often enough to take an inventory of what they believe and why they believe it.

Tiffany was born in El Paso, Texas, and has this to say:

As a result of my proximity to the border with Mexico, many of my friends, doctors, teachers, and babysitters were Mexican. I also spoke Spanish before I spoke English due to my access to the Mexican border and Mexican people. The early influences of Mexican culture on my life made an indelible impression on my worldview. I am sitting in a café in Texas, visiting for the first time in 30 years, and everything about the place makes me nostalgic for my childhood. The southwestern art, the Mexican cultural references, and the majority Spanish-speaking population warms my soul. I have a positive bias toward Mexico, Mexicans, and Spanish-speaking people because I associate all of it with my childhood. I happen to have had an unusually wonderful childhood.

But even a positive bias can create problems. I, unfortunately, have a known irrational response when one of my biases is triggered. The tone of the immigration debate infuriates me, particularly when people express negative stereotypes about Mexican people. The minute I hear people talking negatively about the people I consider family by association, I feel the heat rise in my face. My speech quickens, my blood boils, and I am at the ready with a dozen comebacks, many of which I would probably not use in a rational conversation where my emotions had not been piqued. Say something bad about Mexicans and you may as well insult my mother. That is funny, because I am not aware of any Mexican ancestry in my family.

Bias works both ways. It can influence your opinion toward or against people, places, things, and ideas. I have a bias that favors Mexicans.

Our friend Manny had a bias against Native Americans until he learned better. The people who harbor negative stereotypes about Mexicans have negative biases. Why does your bias or mine matter? It matters because when we are confronted with the object of our biases, it can influence our behavior in ways that defy our values and our conscious thought. As Tiffany explains, “I have to fight to think well of a person who says what I consider to be hateful things about Mexican people.” They may have experiences that validate their opinions, and their opinions are exactly that—opinions. If Manny had met a Native American when he was 12 years old, he would have likely been terrified because he held the opinion that they were inherently dangerous. Had his perspective never been examined, would he have hired an American Indian attorney when he needed one? Would he judge someone of Native ancestry more harshly when her character was called into question? When we harbor unconscious biases, they can wreak havoc on our better judgment.

Images Bias is in the air you breathe.

You could have the most inclusive families in the world, however, and still absorb biased information about others. One well-known study analyzed a wide swath of written material—from books to magazines to newspapers—and created a database that approximates what a college-bound student will have read by the time she enters college.2 It then analyzed how often words were paired in order to understand where stereotyped messages about people might come from.

The study found, perhaps not surprisingly, that we are immersed in a culture that creates and reinforces problematic associations. Black is most commonly paired with the adjectives “poor” and “violent,” while white is paired with “wealthy” and “progressive.” Males are described most often as “dominant” and “leader,” while female pairs most often with “distant” and “warm,” perhaps indicating that we assess women for their emotional tone while we expect men to assume leadership positions.

Images Positive bias can be just as harmful as a negative bias.

Don’t think that just because you like something or someone that bias must be a good thing. You will get that response from people you are trying to influence with the ideas in this book. The problem with positive bias is that it can unfairly influence a person’s decisions and attitudes against someone else. Positive bias can still fuel exclusion. Positive bias pushes us toward one thing and away from another. That can leave people feeling included or excluded depending on which side of the bias they are on.

CALL TO ACTION

For 24 hours, pay attention to what you see and hear in the media. Try to identify any bias in the perspectives shared.

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Endorsements

“Tiffany Jana and Matthew Freeman take a tough issue that almost immediately raises everyone's defenses and break it down in simple and practical ways. They explore simple steps to overcoming bias tailored to individuals and small groups. Just as we want to improve our appearance, attitude, or prospects for success, we can improve our ability to engage with others without the blinders of bias blocking our path.”
—Senator Tim Kaine

“This wonderful book encouraged me to look inside and be honest about biases that I didn't even realize I had. Overcoming Bias gives me hope that the biases that separate people can be changed if we're willing to put in the work. With all the discord in the world today, this is the right message at the right time.”
—Helayne Spivak, Director, Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter


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