Don't Be Biased Against Bias

If you have a brain, you’re biased.
10/25/2016 03:51 pm ET Updated Oct 26, 2016

By Dr. David Rock, Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson, and Camille Inge.

“I think implicit bias is a problem for everyone, not just police,” said Hillary Clinton at the first presidential debate. While the claim ruffled some listeners (”Wait, did Hillary Clinton just call us all racist?”), it truly appalled one listener in particular: Mike Pence. At the VP debate, Pence called Clinton out for her “bad mouthing.”

“The demeaning accusation” of implicit bias “has got to stop,” he stated.

Clinton proposed that we’re all implicitly biased. Pence proposed that being called biased is demeaning to all of America. But which one of them is out of line? Does Clinton owe us an apology? Or does Pence just not get it?

To answer this question, let’s do some fact checking based on the seat of bias, the human brain.

If the brain wrote an “about me” section on okCupid, it might say that it is “sometimes this,” and “sometimes that,” “depending on its mood.” It likes “going on adventures,” but also “ordering in and watching TV.” The brain is highly functional, but also temperamental; it’s not perfect. But in order to build a strong relationship with the brain, it is useful to learn why and how it makes its decisions in various contexts.

Implicit bias is what’s to thank for our general ability to guess which of our friend’s kitchen drawers is for utensils. But it can also be what’s to blame for our general tendency towards stereotyping.

First of all, the brain has evolved over time to make decisions swiftly and relatively effortlessly. It still uses shortcuts and cheat sheets that helped keep us alive long enough to reproduce in our hunter-gatherer days. So while logical reasoning is the brain’s evolved way of processing information and making judgments, biases are the brain’s default ways of doing so—which are, more often than not, automatic, unconscious, and unintentional. Implicit bias is what’s to thank for our general ability to guess which of our friend’s kitchen drawers is for utensils. But it can also be what’s to blame for our general tendency towards stereotyping.

Biases develop from our experiences, and they tend to be exaggerations of perceived trends into universal truths. We’ve developed many kinds of biases to help us navigate the world with marginal effort. The word bias linguistically derives from the Greek word for oblique, as in a diagonal line—as in the shortest distance from a to b. And without these mental shortcuts, the brain would exhaust itself. This is because simply making a conscious decision uses up mental energy; the prefrontal cortex (PFC)—the hub of rational decision-making—is highly efficient, but easily worn out. But remember that biases, while fallible, are automatic and unconscious, which means that they can still function on low battery.

Think of your time with your PFC as you would think of a recent grad’s time to consult with a world-renowned lawyer. The quality-work-per-minute rate is high, but so is the dollar-per-minute rate. You can get a lot of good results out of it, but it’s only so long before you run out of money, and have to go back to texting an enthusiastic Law & Order fan for advice.

What’s tricky is that these biases have a cyclic effect—first, availability bias leads us to believe the information that’s most readily available as true. Then, once we believe something to be true, our confirmation bias makes us discount exceptions, even when exceptions begin to outnumber the rule. Furthermore, our bias blind spot makes it nearly impossible to even recognize when these biases are occurring. This is a significant point: We don’t have the mechanisms to make a decision, and at that same moment notice if our decision is biased. It’s similar to the way we can’t solve two even simple math problems at the same moment.

Because we rarely feel biased ourselves, and because bias has a nasty stigma, we are easily offended when people suggest we are biased.

While we rarely see ourselves being biased in real time, we can often see evidence of biased decisions in hindsight. (Most of us have noticed that it is possible to feel very right about something and turn out to be very, very wrong.) Because we rarely feel biased ourselves, and because bias has a nasty stigma, we are easily offended when people suggest we are biased. Yet the facts are, scientists have discovered over 100 biases built into our brain. All brains. Bias is a deeply ingrained and deeply necessary part of our cognitive machinery.

It comes down to one simple fact: If you have a brain, you’re biased.

So does Clinton owe us an apology? Sorry, Pence. She doesn’t. In fact, she did us a service.

Implicit bias is an everyone problem, because it is a brain problem. And it was brave of her to address that problem. Politicians generally like to tell people things they want to hear, not things that make us uncomfortable. But discomfort—the cognitive dissonance that tells us two things that should fit, don’t—is necessary for behavior change. Therefore, it was accurate of Clinton’s VP candidate to counter Pence as he did: “People shouldn’t be afraid to bring up issues of bias in law enforcement,” Kaine proposed. “And if you’re afraid to have the discussion, you’ll never solve it.” We can’t be biased against our bias anymore.

Implicit bias is an everyone problem, because it is a brain problem. And it was brave of her to address that problem.

Labs around the world are busy studying bias in great detail. We now know more than ever about how to mitigate bias, though the steps we need to take require some focus and commitment. Breaking bias is hard, because biases are complex. But it is possible, and it is important. Corporations everywhere are investing time and effort to break bias, because they know it matters for innovation and performance. In the public sphere, lives depend on it. Yet one thing is clear: what doesn’t work is to pretend that it’s not a problem. When it comes to bias, we shouldn’t let our biases get in the way of fixing something that matters.

The authors will be talking about the science of breaking bias and accelerating inclusion at the forthcoming Neuroleadership Summit in NYC. Watch online free November 2 and 3 at NeuroLeadership.com.

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