Outsmarting our Brains to Overcome Hidden Biases

June 26th, 2014

Banaji_200x130Can having a “Mediterranean” nose hinder your ability to land a seat at a university? Apparently it did at no less a place than Yale in the mid-twentieth century, says Dan A. Oren in his book Joining the Club – A History of Jews and Yale.

Such was the prejudice against Jews at this Ivy League institution that the admission panel came up with a “tactful” code to restrict their enrollment: finding fault with a candidate’s nose and making it reason enough to reject an application.

While such blatant discrimination is unimaginable today, the fact that diversity was unwanted in the club-like atmosphere of Yale in the 1940s has a lesson for all of us, said Mahzarin Banaji, Harvard University professor of social ethics, at an RBC Inclusive Leadership event on May 29, 2014.

“We must ask what it is that we are doing today that would look like the ‘Mediterranean nose’ 50 years from now,” said Dr. Banaji, who is also the co-author of the book Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People.

She said we underestimate the degree of influence our unconscious biases have. Most often strong expectations outweigh or push out the evidence. Put simply, our mindset is not as inclusive as we think it is.

It is a distressing claim, one that tends to surprise those who are confronted by evidence that shows their behaviour is out of sync with their intentions. But research conducted by Dr. Banaji and her colleagues reveals that the human brain is hard-wired to make quick decisions based on a variety of assumptions and experiences without us even knowing it is doing so.

“We’d like to believe we are open-minded, fair and without bias, but research shows otherwise. This is an important, even if uncomfortable, realization for most of us,” said Dr. Banaji.

Deadly gender bias

Pointing out the complete irrationality that can arise out of unconscious bias, she cited the case of people judging hurricane risks based on their names. More than six decades of death rates from US hurricanes show that feminine-named hurricanes caused significantly more deaths than those with masculine names. Research indicates that this is because feminine names lead to lower perceived risk and consequently less preparedness.

“While getting killed in hurricanes is an extreme consequence arising out of widely held gender stereotypes, its implications in everyday life are many,” said Dr. Banaji. Research on hidden bias reveals that in spite of the best intentions, most people harbour deep-seated resistance to the “different,” whether that difference is defined by such evident factors as race, gender, ethnicity, age or physical characteristics, or more subtle ones such as background, personality type or experiences.

Dr. Banaji drew on two news photo captions in the aftermath of Hurricane Katarina to illustrate how we unconsciously put into context things we perceive. The caption for the picture of a black woman carrying goods on her head through the flood waters said she had “looted” it. A similar picture of a white couple with backpacks had a caption that said they “found” the goods.

Outsmarting the brain

As potent as hidden biases can be, the good news is that it is possible to overcome them. Although it requires a courageous approach to inclusiveness in everyday interactions, the solution isn’t complex or costly. Instead, all it takes is a concerted effort to outsmart our own brains through awareness, acknowledgment and consciousness.

The first step to defeat hidden biases is to be honest with ourselves about the blind spots we have. Having a bias is only human. The only shame is in making no effort to improve. “Human beings are an improving species — we have been improving ourselves in every way over millennia,” said Dr. Banaji.

“Comfort with diversity is an acquired taste, just like single malt Scotch,” she quipped. “But we already embrace and encourage it in a variety of spheres. Like for instance diversity in a financial portfolio, diversity in out nutrient intake and the conscious effort to keep the gene pool diverse by not marrying our cousins!”

On June 6, Dr. Mahzarin R. Banaji delivered a keynote speech on Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People at the 2014 Cities of Migration Conference in Berlin.

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