The dedicated scientists studying bias – the origins, expressions, and harmful impact of bias, along with anti-bias interventions - have risen to meet our times. Two prominent scientists recently published comprehensive books on bias – Jennifer Eberhardt on racial bias (Biased, 2019) and Pragya Agarwal on unconscious bias (Sway, 2020).
Their integration of scientific findings is explained in a manner that helps us better understand the nature of bias. Our part is to grow awareness of our own biases and our desire to set our biases aside so we can treat every person as unique and whole.
This article attempts to distil a substantial body of science described in the books into a melody line. The books offer a full symphony, both tragic and inspiring, and one well worth listening to with undivided attention.
Let’s start with awareness and understanding of the universal features of bias.
Without exposure, the brain doesn’t distinguish among individual faces of other races
Significant exposure to faces of one or more racial categories generates the ability to distinguish among faces of those races. Absence of exposure to a particular race leads to a lack of ability to distinguish one face from another, an inability to perceive individual differences. This phenomenon is evidence for the statement – they all look alike.
It isn’t surprising then to feel discomfort, even fear, in the presence of a face of an unfamiliar race. Adding bias to this phenomenon, studies show that White people (who have a bias against Black people) are unable to correctly read emotions expressed by Black people, including distinguishing fear from anger. This perception error can have life and death consequences.
The brain evolved to categorize
Without conscious control, the brain groups like things together in order to simplify and make sense of a complex world. At six months old, infants are able to categorize both gender and race. Social categories become stereotypes, generalized and homogenized, based on a small number of characteristics. These characteristics, which can have some empirical reality, are not a complete picture, don’t reflect individual variation, and are applied in a broad-brush manner as simplistic labels – thereby overestimated and exaggerated.
Categories and stereotypes are evoked as reflexes - rapidly, automatically, unconsciously, and unquestioned. Stereotypes become rigid and hard to sway. They are easier to maintain than change, especially when mindsets are resistant to change. They are reinforced by families, social environments, and media representations.
The category of identity
Early on, our minds and brains focus on creating and preserving an individual identity, a self-category, which supports self-esteem and self-protection (I have value and I am safe). Individual identity, a sense of self, is based on individual traits and a comparative ranking – how one’s traits compare and contrast with others’ traits.
What also contributes to a sense of self is identifying with social groups. This leads to identity bias, where we assign positive qualities and favor people who are alike (in-groups) over other groups (out-groups) in order to preserve and enhance self-esteem.
We feel and act differently toward in-groups (us) than out-groups (them), a phenomenon called othering:
Us - We prefer our in-groups (affinity bias). We feel safe and comfortable with our in-groups. We have empathy for people in our in-groups. We are interested in exploring the individual differences among people in our in-groups.
Them - We feel unsafe and uncomfortable with different and unfamiliar out-groups. Our discomfort blocks the ability to feel empathy for out-groups. We see out-groups as more homogeneous than our in-groups. We are not curious about and interested in individual differences among people in out-groups. And interestingly, we focus more on what’s wrong with out-groups than what’s good about our in-groups.
Along comes another bias – confirmation bias – where we narrow our attention to what confirms our identities and social groups, reducing inputs and objectivity. Confirmation bias is like an addictive drug – it feels like riding a wave. Our identities prefer reassurance over curiosity and inquiry.
Our identities seek evidence for superiority of our in-groups over other groups to enhance protection and self-esteem. A superiority bias of one identity over another generates prejudice which spawns subtle or hostile microaggressions - slights, insults, and incivilities toward out-groups.
Biases worsen when we are busy, distracted, stressed, over-influenced by a social media echo chamber, when our self-esteem suffers a setback, or our individual or social identities are questioned. In these circumstances, stereotyping and identity bias surges, fueling defensiveness and more biased reactions. These are reflexive reactions, not reflective responses.
The most extreme type of identity bias
There is a very long list of common types of stereotypes and identity biases, including age, status, height, attractiveness, accent, ethnicity, religion, intelligence, disability, weight, mental health, and political affiliation.
The top two most extreme types of identity bias are gender and race. Regarding gender, studies show that women tend to be objectified by their body parts (including by women), while men tend to be perceived as whole humans, greater than the sum of their parts.
The most extreme identity bias is based on race - the White identity (at the top) toward the Black identity (at the bottom), reinforced by societal dominance and privilege of the White race. This is a dehumanizing bias (e.g. Blacks associated with apes) as shown in the current design of the widely used Implicit Association Test on race. The test measures one's implicit association of White and Black people to either animal (not-human) or human categories.
The terrible harm caused by identity bias
The negative consequences suffered by out-groups over the span of human history have been well documented by countless authors who witnessed or experienced the traumas directly, or brought them to life through research. The legacies of tragedies and traumas in earlier generations are carried forward, without complete healing and recovery. These growth processes need much love, respect, and support.
The harms of bias, prejudice, and microaggressions continue unabated. Out-group members face big inequities (e.g., opportunities, jobs, geographical segregation, access to resources including education and healthcare) and carry a big psychological burden:
Being continually slighted and not treated respectfully as individuals; being quickly judged and categorized.
Lacking a sense of belonging and inclusion, reducing self-esteem and connection.
Fearing discrimination, which leads to stress, anxiety and self-consciousness.
The stress of bias impairs cognitive processing and performance, reducing competence and confidence.
The stress of bias causes inflammation and chronic disease – both physical and mental illness - and shortens lifespans.
Bias can be internalized and become self-fulfilling, limiting self-determination (reaching one's full potential).
Biases are a cluster of emotions, thoughts and instincts generated reflexively by the brain and masquerading as reality. Biases distort our access to the present reality. When our biases are in charge, we are on automatic pilot and unaware of the uniqueness of individuals in the present moment. Our biases harm others' self-esteem, belonging, competence, health, access to resources and opportunities, and self-determination.
The good news? Bias is not innate. Bias is a social construct, developed and maintained through social experience. Biases can then be deconstructed over time through new social experiences: positive examples and role models, and positive experiences and relationships with out-group members. Even better is deep collaboration among groups to help repair the past and create a better future of less bias and more humanity, equity, and realized potential.
Back to where we started, what do we do with our biases?
Notice your brain’s reflexive activity of categorizing, generalizing, preferring, affiliating, judging, and fearing, based on your past experiences.
Reflect on how you formed stereotypes, your identity, and your in-group biases. Consider how confirmation bias has protected your identity.
Pause your brain's reflexive activity, set aside preconceptions, and become fully awake and present to each person.
Be open, curious, and then attune with each person as a unique individual in the unique, present moment.
Cultivate cognitive and emotional empathy – lean in to understand and respect others' experiences, perspectives, strengths, challenges, and opportunities.
Be welcoming, accepting and non-defensive when any of your biases are pointed out.
Be responsible and accountable for harm caused, often unintentionally, by your stereotypes and implicit biases.
Act. Speak up about others' microaggressions with humility and grace. Take action to reduce the harm caused by your biases and the biases of your in-groups. Explore how biases have held others back and support them to reach their fullest potential.
Eberhardt and Agarwal end their books on a hopeful chord, that change is possible. More people are dedicating their lives to reducing racism and biases, and increasing diversity, equity and inclusion. A more diverse millennial group is moving into societal leadership.
While biases are in our nature, so is our human ability to construct a better nature. That's the symphony we are writing together.
Margaret Moore/Coach Meg.