Tag Archive for: biases

Working Through Our Implicit Biases

by Tessa Charlesworth, for Leadership 2020 (copyright)

I research implicit intergroup biases and prejudices across the age span, and yet every day I experience at least one moment where my own biases trump my well-meaning conscious efforts. I am prone to negative self-stereotyping because of my gender, because of my age, because of my image, yet I am also sadly prone to stereotyping others because of their gender, race, age, or culture. How is that I can know so much about my biases and yet still be shocked by their presence? That is, in fact, the scary thing about implicit biases – by their very nature, implicit biases are outside the realm of easy cognitive control and therefore remain in our “blind spots”.

Such a depressing perspective of the “perennial implicit bias” would seem to suggest that we could never be wholly tolerant individuals, equal in our acceptance of all groups and social categories. In some senses, this may be the case: our brains seem to be wired to express “out-group” threat responses in evolutionarily old brain regions like the amygdala; and early implicit biases are strongly predictive of biases and discrimination across the lifespan. Thankfully, however, the fact that our implicit biases are pervasive does not mean that they dominate our cognitions or behaviours, nor does it mean that they are entirely static.

This brief essay will consider how we can reduce, or more appropriately “work through”, our implicit biases. It is not about suppressing, erasing, or eradicating your biases out of shame and embarrassment. Rather, it is about monitoring, evaluating, and updating your assumptions and beliefs about another individual, group, or culture, with the ultimate goal of engaging in mindful intergroup knowledge-sharing and friendships. This is part of Leadership 2020’s aim to enhance cultural agility and humility.

In the early 2000s, amidst the global conflicts peaking after the 9/11 attacks and “wars on terror”, Ang and colleagues (2003, 2011) proposed a theory of “cultural intelligence” in order to account for individual differences in cultural competency, flexibility, and intercultural success. Within their framework of cultural intelligence, the authors suggested a central linking element of “cultural metacognition” (CM) which involves: (1) awareness of cultural assumptions; (2) monitoring and updating those assumptions before, during, and after cross-cultural interactions; and (3) planning for future interactions. Although it speaks explicitly to how we are able to ensure positive contact and efficacy across cultural differences, it can be extended to include efficacy across a wide variety of differences (based on income, job, age, gender, race, etc.). In fact, the “metacognitive” abilities implied by CM can also be seen as general abilities in mindfulness and awareness.

Following the conceptualization of CM, numerous authors began to investigate the mechanism of how CM leads to cross-cultural success (including in negotiation, adaptability, and creative collaboration). One of the more convincing proposed mechanisms was that of “affect-based trust”, or the feelings of reciprocity and mutuality between two groups or individuals. Specifically, a team of researchers from Harvard and Columbia Business Schools led by Roy Chua found that the power of CM “flowed through” affective trust. Without both affect-based trust and CM, cross-cultural teams showed poor creative collaboration success.

Although this study doesn’t seem to be immediately related to our discussion of how to reduce implicit biases, it does, in fact, reveal a very potent way of regulating our biases so that we can achieve positive outcomes (both in terms of productive successes and friendship potentials). The study shows that, if we engage in metacognitive processes of awareness, and flexibility about our assumptions, we can engender intergroup trust. This trust, in turn, will help to combat our implicit anxiety responses (like those I alluded to earlier that arise in the amygdala), and reduce our nonconscious prejudices. Ultimately, this trust and metacognition will establish productive relationships that will then further reduce our stereotyping about out-group ignorance or incompetence.

In sum, our implicit biases may be our perniciously ubiquitous friends but they also offer the opportunity to engage in intergroup learning: they can inspire us to engage in “metacognition” and “trust” that will beneficially result in intergroup friendships, collaborations, and acceptance.

A praxis framework for working through implicit biases

STEP 1: Become aware of your biases

  • Take implicit association tests on Harvard’s Project Implicit https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/index.jsp
  • Discuss with a close friend, colleague, or family member what they see as your “blind spots”. Try your very best not to get offended (maybe do this while munching on a nice piece of dark chocolate so that your “happy hormones” are engaged…)
  • Practice personal reflection, meditation, or journaling

GOAL: Establish “cultural metacognition”

STEP 2: Mindfullly engage in interactions that may help to update or disconfirm the biases

  • Participate in programs like L2020 and reach out to those who seem to have very different views from your own perspective. Have personal conversations.
  • Read books or articles written by authors with different perspectives, cultural or historical backgrounds. Watch documentaries about different opinions, or films produced from different viewpoints

GOAL: Establish “affect-based trust”

STEP 3: Plan for future interactions

  • Continue to think about or journal about your experiences: how have your assumptions changed? How have they stayed the same? What has been most helpful in working through your biases? How can you continue to support these experiences?
  • Schedule further conversations with friends or colleagues from different perspectives. Perhaps do a project together, watch a new cross-cultural film together, or start a cross-cultural book club.

GOAL: Create a loop between “cultural metacognition”, “affect-based trust”, and “intercultural success” that is continuously sustained

Further reading:

Ang, S, Van Dyne, L, & Tan, ML (2011) Cultural intelligence, In R. J. Sternberg & S. B. Kaufman (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook on Intelligence (pp. 582–602). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Chua, RYJ, Morris, MW, & Shira, M (2012) Collaborating across cultures: Cultural metacognition and affect-based trust in creative collaboration, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 188: 116-131.

2020 Resources – TED Talks for Enhanced Understanding

Those of you who have participated in leadership 2020 know how much I am a fan of TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) talks. If you are unfamiliar with TED, all you really need to know is that this is a platform, created by a non-profit organization, in which leading thinkers and activists are invited to give the best talk of their lives on something that matters to them and that could benefit the world, in 18 minutes or less (most are between 10 and 18 minutes). In addition to global TED conferences with prominent speakers, there are hundreds of independently run TEDx gatherings that have a similar intention. TED curates the best talks and presents them as TED talks. You can search for specific topics or follow recommended playlists. There are three things I particularly love about TED talks: I am introduced to interesting people and topics in a bite-size chunk of time; I learn from how people present ideas as well as what they present (e.g. through storytelling); I can view talks outside of my primary field of interest which stimulates my creative thinking (the value of obliquity).

Here are a few wonderful talks that might help to uncover, understand or further challenge our hidden biases and beliefs – more yoga for the mind!

Bryan Stevenson:
We Need to Talk About an Injustice

Bryan Stevenson is a public-interest lawyer who works with the poor, incarcerated and condemned in the United States. He’s the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (http://www.eji.org) and they have won legal challenges to eliminate excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerate innocent prisoners on death row, confront abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill, and aid children who have been prosecuted as adults – throughout the US.

“In this engaging and personal talk — with cameo appearances from his grandmother and Rosa Parks — human rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson shares some hard truths about America’s justice system, starting with a massive imbalance along racial lines: a third of the country’s black male population has been incarcerated at some point in their lives. These issues, which are wrapped up in America’s unexamined history, are rarely talked about with this level of candor, insight and persuasiveness.”

 Although the talk focuses on the US system – which is markedly different than the Canadian justice system – there are underlying themes that confront us in Canada. Most notable is the over-representation of Aboriginal people, the poor and people with mental illness and addictions in the justice system. This is a beautiful talk that can encourage empathy for those who are most marginalized in our communities

Verna Myers:
How To Overcome our Biases? Walk Boldly Towards Them

Vernā Myers is a diversity consultant and “recovering lawyer” and leads an organization that breaks down barriers of race, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation in workplaces. She is also the author of Moving Diversity Forward: How to Go from Well-Meaning to Well-Doing.

“Myers encourages us to recognize our own biases in order to actively combat them, emphasizing a “low guilt, high responsibility” philosophy. In her work she points to her own inner biases, because, as she says, ‘People relax when they know the diversity lady has her own issues.’”

Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People (Part Two)

Last week I shared Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald’s premise that we all carry hidden biases (blindspots and mindbugs) resulting “from a lifetime of exposure to cultural attitudes about age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, social class, sexuality, disability status, and nationality”. I suggested that – as self-aware leaders – it is important that we uncover and understand our biases. In this week’s issue we will look more closely at what the authors suggest we can do about our blindspots.

The authors suggest that, “effective methods for removing mindbugs that contribute to hidden biases have yet to be convincingly established” (p. 149). Nonetheless, we can ‘outsmart them’ even if eradication is challenging. Awareness alone does not change our thinking or behaviour – we have to get engaged and we have to stretch our thinking through counter-stereotyping experiences and images. For example, to counter the dominant negative images and stories that affect us every day, we can choose to search out and display contrasting images, e.g. a construction worker in hard hat breastfeeding her baby, to counter stereotypes related to gender and jobs; or highly esteemed and inspiring Indigenous leaders – elders, youth, women – to counter the images in the media and stored in our mind of Indigenous people as being victims; seniors joyfully engaged in physical activities or learning new things to challenge our ideas about aging and infirmity.

We also have to seek out contact and begin to get beyond the ideas we carry about ‘the other’ to building empathy for ‘the other’ through personal contact, as Tessa suggested in her feature article last week. The suggested TED talk by Verna Myers speaks to the idea of walking towards our biases without shame or guilt.

In Leadership 2020 we aim to build cultural agility – this means moving along a learning path from awareness to understanding (empathy) to agility and humility. I will come back to this in a future communiqué. This topic is particularly alive for me as I review the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released this week. This is an amazing time in our history. How will we show up to live into the promise of reconciliation? I believe that we can be more skillfull if we are open to being more self aware of the judgments that hold us back.

Reflective practice questions:

How will you ‘walk towards’ the judgments and biases that you are uncovering in 2016?
In what practical and concrete ways can you build relationships with members of groups that are less familiar to you?

Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People

This week’s suggested read is one of my favourite books of the past year. Blindspot – Hidden Biases of Good People (2013) was written by Mahzarin Banaji of Harvard University and Anthony Greenwald of University of Washington to share their extensive research and learnings about “the hidden biases we all carry from a lifetime of exposure to cultural attitudes about age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, social class, sexuality, disability status, and nationality” – and what we can do about them. I am going to review this book in two communiqués. This week, I will describe the premise of the book and the importance of understanding biases, and encourage you to take an online (free) Implicit Association Test to prepare for next week’s issue. Next week, I will look more closely at what the authors suggest we can do about our blindspots.

The authors developed the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which helps reveal stereotypes or ‘blindspots’ in our ways of thinking about and perceiving ‘the other’. Having completed a number of them myself I can attest to the positively disruptive experience – as I became more aware of my own biases (and there were some that shocked me) I felt better equipped to begin to realign my thinking and behaviour with my intentions (e.g., to be an open-minded and empathic person, to be more culturally agile).

As the authors describe, we are social beings that, by evolutionary necessity, have formed social groups, and have developed an array of ways of defining our groups and characterizing other groups. We are also ‘meaning makers’ – as information comes in, we sift and sort this information into categories in order to make sense of it. These categories include value assessments such as good/bad; trustworthy/not trustworthy; smart/stupid, etc. In fact, we bring this need to belong in a social group and the need to make meaning together by trying to figure out what the members of our social group think about things and how they attribute meaning. Indeed, “other minds matter to us enough that regions of neural real estate are uniquely engaged for the purpose of making social meaning” (p. 13). What this means is that we are heavily influenced by what we think others in our social group/cultural environments think.

Biases are comprised of “bits of knowledge about social groups…[that are] stored in our brains because we encounter them so frequently in our cultural environments…[They] can influence our behaviour towards members of particular social groups, but we remain oblivious to their influence” (italics added, p. xiii). In other words, we think we know something about ourselves or others as truth/fact (e.g. “I am not racist”, “I embrace people who are different than me”), and yet our minds can (and do) operate at an unconscious level and we behave according to these hidden biases.

Banaji and Greenwald describe these as ‘social mindbugs’ that act unconsciously to influence our views and behaviour towards others. At their very worst, these mindbugs contribute to actions such as the murder of innocent people based on a perceived (internal) – but not actual – threat. But in the day-to-day, they operate in the construction of beliefs and judgments we make about others – the people we serve, the people we live with, and the people in our communities. “Understanding how mindbugs erode the coastline of rational thought, and ultimately the very possibility of a just society, requires understanding the mindbugs that are at the root of disparity between our inner minds and outward actions” (p. 20).

The authors speak about two minds – our reflective mind and our automatic mind. The reflective is our conscious mind and the one which drives what we say to the world (and ourselves), e.g. “I value and respect Aboriginal peoples”. The automatic mind however is “a stranger to us. We implicitly know something or feel a certain way, and often these thoughts and feelings are reflected in our actions too – the difference being that we can’t always explain these actions, and they are at times completely at odds with our conscious intentions…Our automatic preferences steer us towards less conscious decisions, but they are hard to explain because they remain impervious to the probes of conscious motivation” (p. 55).

However, we don’t need to be held captive by the automatic mind. If we can shed some light on the unconscious, implicit preferences and biases we hold, we can create a cognitive dissonance between our two minds and through this dislodge some of them. This is where the IAT comes into play.    

Practice opportunity: Go to https://implicit.harvard.edu and you can sign in as a guest or register and then will be given the opportunity to take a number of different tests. You’ll have a choice of seven tests as a Canadian (included are Weight, Age, Gender, Sexuality, Nation and Race IATs), but not before reading a disclaimer: “If you are unprepared to encounter interpretations that you might find objectionable, please do not proceed further.” This is an invitation into self awareness!