What Are Your Unconscious Biases?

Last year I wrote a post, “Your data suggest a strong automatic association for Male with Career and Female with Family”, which was the result of my having taken the Implicit Association Test (IAT) for Gender and Career.

Although the IAT has sparked controversy—among other things, some critics say it doesn’t prove that an implicit belief leads to an action—it has also been one of the most studied measures in psychology and is widely used in training to raise awareness of unconscious biases. Other researchers believe that implicit preferences can predict behavior. Implicit preferences are related to discrimination in hiring and promotion, medical treatment, and decisions related to criminal justice.

Today’s Wall Street Journal had a story about unconscious bias, by Elizabeth Bernstein.

Research shows that all of us—even the most well-meaning and open-minded—have some type of implicit, or unconscious, biases, says Dolly Chugh. She is an expert on implicit bias and unethical behavior and the author of “The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias.” And, like it or not, these biases may influence our behavior, says Dr. Chugh.

Bernstein shared the results of a Google employee who took the IAT test, and it sounds like he got nearly the same results that I did. Like, me, the Googler was surprised by the results, but then when he did a little data analysis, he realized it was likely true. His analysis showed that 80% of his email contacts were male. When he ran the program on his social media accounts, the results were the same: 80% of the people he was connected to on LinkedIn and followed on Twitter were men.

I have not checked my contact lists, but my guess is that there are more men than women in those lists. One of the ways suggested to check for this sort of bias is to look at the last 10 people you connected with on LinkedIn or Twitter. I did a quick look at whom I follow on Twitter, and of the last 10 people I followed, half were women. So at least on that one metric, things seem to be OK. But my guess is that my LinkedIn profile is predominantly male.

Dr. Chugh says in order to fight unconscious biases it’s crucial to have a growth mindset, as opposed to a fixed one. Our mindsets can differ at various times and in different aspects of our lives. But when we have a fixed mindset we see ourselves as fully formed, so we are likely to remain the same. And it can lead to blind spots. “A fixed mindset says: ‘I am not racist or sexist.’” Dr. Chugh says. “A growth mindset, which is open to change, says: ‘I know there is always room to grow in this area.’”

Dr. Clough offers the following tips to work on your unconscious biases:

  • Take the Implicit Association Test. Besides gender, there are IATS related to age, weight, race, and religion, to name a few.
  • Perform a self-audit. Look at the last 10 tweets you read, songs you downloaded or people you connected with. How similar are they to you and to the others in that group of 10? This audit will tell you if you are sitting in an echo chamber or exposing yourself to different perspectives. Broaden your content consumption, including TV shows, movies, books, music, podcasts and social media.
  • Harbor a growth mindset, as this means you can change.
  • Practice willful awareness. Recognize what you may not know about people who are not like you, and find ways to fill in the gaps. Start with your friends.
  • Listen to people who aren’t like you. Don’t insist on presenting your point of view. And don’t try to explain away their experiences or solve their problems. Ask questions. Be open to learning about what they feel, even when you’re uncomfortable.
  • Talk to young people about their perspectives. Consider it reverse mentoring.  Ask them about their backgrounds, friends and the social issues on their minds. Don’t interrupt or contradict.
  • Learn to pronounce at least three names you don’t know how to say, preferably of people you know. Often, when we don’t know how to pronounce someone’s name we avoid or ignore that person.
  • Expect this to be hard. Think of yourself as a work in progress…

This seems like a great list, and I look forward to trying a few of them out. Given that I am surrounded by 18-22 year olds, talking to young people seems like a good place to start.

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