Dr Mahzarin Banaji; Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics; Department of Psychology at Harvard University

Unconscious Bias and Real-World Implications

Published 3rd December 2015

Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics, Department of Psychology at Harvard University

Published 3rd December 2015

Dr Mahzarin Banaji is the co-author of Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. In a conversation with HQ Asia, she talks about ‘mindbugs’ and unconscious biases, and how organisations can deal with these issues.

There are a number of subconscious or hidden biases that can impact how people react in the workplace. Dr Mahzarin Banaji talks us through her findings.

What are ‘mindbugs’ and how do they manifest in organisations?

Mindbugs or unconscious biases are ingrained habits of thought that can cause errors in thinking. In Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, which I co-authored with Anthony Greenwald, we explain that mindbugs are a natural outcome of our mental makeup as humans. In the book, we focus on how mindbugs affect people’s assessments of others. For example, when we make decisions about a person based on their group membership — their race, gender and age — we can miscalculate important dimensions of their worth, such as their goodness and competence. Unchecked, mindbugs can result in us making mistakes. For example, we may not select the right talent or we may not generate the right business strategy in a new culture.

Mindbugs are tricky because they are hidden from our conscious awareness.

How can organisations mitigate the effects of unconscious bias?

First, organisations need to understand the results of research on unconscious bias. This is now possible because a lot has been written for a general audience. Senior leadership might consider becoming proficient in this research, so that their findings can permeate throughout the entire organisation.

Second, organisations need to bring together internal experts, who have decision-making power, to discuss how mindbugs impact their organisation. Analysing practices at the most minute level is a good way to proceed. For example, consider recruitment. The best people may not apply for a role, perhaps because the language of the advertisement is not welcoming. Then, when they do apply, characteristics such as their facial features or their group membership, like religion, ethnicity, accent, race or age, may lead to them being evaluated inaccurately by their interviewers. If they are hired, their performance appraisals may be interpreted through the lens of their group membership. And members of disadvantaged groups may play a role in their own undoing, for example, not putting themselves forward despite having the talent for a role.

Third, organisations need to ask hard questions of themselves. When it comes to recruitment, organisations might ask: is the recruitment net being cast broadly? What sorts of biases could creep in during the recruitment process? Where is the data on the best candidates coming from? How is the advertisement worded? Do we have a referral programme? If so, does the referral programme detract from the goal of bringing a diverse group of people to the organisation?

At each inflection point, honest conversations about how best to keep bias at bay are necessary. Similar conversations must be held for promotion and compensation, leadership development, team relationships and client relationships. These conversations should be dispassionate.

Finally, organisations need to scrutinise their own internal data. This has to be done with the intent to learn from facts, as opposed to generating facts from one’s (selective) memory. For example, some senior executives I know had perceptions about their organisation that were not supported by facts. These executives believed that their firm had a higher percentage of women leaving than men, and that the women who left were leaving to have children. However, the data showed that staff attrition was actually equal for men and women.

Why the bias? Our memories are selective. In this instance, when women did leave to have children, the executives’ minds exaggerated and over-inflated the numbers. Relying on the facts rather than on our memory or impressions is a simple and effective habit to develop.

Compared to how unconscious bias has manifested in a Western culture, would unconscious bias manifest differently in Asia?

No human being is free of unconscious bias, even though each individual differs in the degree to which they have a particular bias. However, cultures do differ in their strength of bias. It would not surprise anybody to learn that people prefer their own religious groups and their own nation states. However, Asia is too diverse to generate any data on the continent as a whole.

Compared to a Western society, would you expect the outcomes of unconscious bias to be different in an Asia society?

I don’t have any data, but here’s a speculation. Western societies are known for upholding the value that individuals are the primary drivers of their own behaviour. Such an ideal may make it harder for people from the West to accept the concept that their minds and behaviours are shaped by invisible, but potent, forces inherent in their culture. However, these ideas may be more readily accepted in Asian countries, which, in general, have a much more collectivistic mindset.

I have found audiences around the world to be open to the ideas described in Blindspot, and enthusiastic about changing themselves and their organisations.

How can individuals become more aware of and mitigate their unconscious bias?

We can measure the disparity between our consciously held values and the data that emerges from tests of hidden bias. This disparity can be revealing and, for many people I’ve spoken to, it is this disparity that often provides the impetus to seek change.

We can think about ways to change our aspirations. We can ask hard questions about the experiences we create for ourselves, such as the media we consume, the friends we have, the neighbourhoods we live in and frequent and the causes we champion. In other words we can, if we care to, shape the influences on our minds and on our behaviour.

We should consider the possibility that our minds are vulnerable and they carry the thumbprints of culture.

As such, our minds are not bias-free. But we do not need to wait for our minds to change. We are able to intervene directly and change the actions we take.

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