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Overcome your Personal Bias for Good

February 01, 2020

B I A S ?   W H A T   B I A S ?

At school, we are often told about the need to accept everyone for who they are, and to avoid prejudice, and most of us would agree. Many of us go out of our way to promote equality and inclusivity, and none of us would admit openly to judging others on the color of their skin, or the way that they dress.  But, how would you react if I was to tell you that all of us have biases, and they shape our decision making? In the 1940s, a famous experiment showed that even black children had subconscious biases against black people. The experimenters asked black children to choose between a white doll and a brown doll. After asking the children a series of questions about their preferences, they found that the children overwhelmingly preferred white to brown people. In 2017, the study was repeated with both white and black children and found that both were biased towards lighter skin. Furthermore, other experiments suggest that these biases don’t disappear as we get older.

So, what is a bias, and how do we get them? A bias is a preconceived opinion or judgment about someone or something, and it can be expressed in favorable or unfavorable ways. The notion that wealthy people must be hardworking or successful, that homeless people are unclean, or that individuals on welfare are lazy are all examples of biases. As the example of the Doll Experiment shows, our biases are not always known to us, and in fact they are part of our subconscious. It is also important to remember that holding a bias does not necessarily make you a bad person.

All of us have fallen prey to bias at some point in our lives, and it is all to do with the way our brain works. The world is a complex place, and the brain has a tendency to sort and categorize visual cues as a way of making our environment easier to understand. By trying to simplify the world, and sort through the vast swaths of information it is continually exposed to, the brain inadvertently creates implicit or subconscious biases.


W H Y   O V E R C O M E   Y O U R   B I A S E S

To test whether you have any implicit biases, consider the following scenarios. How would you feel if:

  • You observe a little boy playing with a princess Barbie.
  • You saw someone who does not have a visible disability park in a handicap spot.
  • You are standing in line behind an obese person at a fast food restaurant.

Do you feel surprised, disappointed, or satisfied by your answers? Why? Why not? Did you identify any biases?

Most people will reach some biased conclusions in these scenarios. For example, the little boy might be assumed to be a ‘sissy’ or ‘gay’, and the driver parking their car might be assumed to be ‘undeserving’. These subconscious biases are natural to all of us, it is important to seek ways to overcome them. One of the main reasons is that implicitly holding a bias clouds our judgment, and prevents us from thinking critically. We are driven in our actions by our thought processes but succumbing to personal biases means that we are not making the most effective use of our most powerful tool – our brain. When biases shape our decision-making, our decisions are not the best they can be. Sometimes, the results are serious.  For example, research has shown that the clinical environment of the hospital leads medical professionals to believe that it is sterile, which prevents them from taking appropriate actions to prevent harm from coming to patients. Many people are prevented from getting the jobs they are qualified for, simply because of the way they look.

When we hold stereotypical beliefs about the individuals we come into contact with, we directly contribute to societal discrimination and hinder society from becoming more equal.

W A Y S   T O   O V E R C O M E   Y O U R   P E R S O N A L   B I A S E S

What can we do then to the need to overcome biases and what strategies can be employed? There three approaches, which when used in unison, can help us to defeat personal biases for good.

Edmund Husserl was a German philosopher who argued that it is not possible to truly know the world without intentionality which is a condition of pure consciousness in which we try to strip away our biases and to deeply understand the world in which we interact. Husserl’s ideas for achieving intentionality involve first engaging in one-to-one interactions with a diverse group of people, and secondly, approaching those interactions with attentive listening. Only through being attentive can we understand reality without it being colored by bias.

Relatedly, researchers have emphasized the importance of critical thinking to helping us to do away with biased understandings of reality. This makes sense: if biased thinking involves uncritical thinking and the use of mental shortcuts, critical thinking will serve as a useful antidote. How do we achieve critical thinking?  Reflection is key. Essentially, biased-driven thinking involves jumping to conclusions. Critical thinking, on the other hand, involves ruminating on observations, opinions, and judgments before reaching conclusions.

Finally, it is important to become culturally sensitive and to use this sensitivity to make better decisions. While all of us are at risk of giving in to biases, those of us who fail to truly engage in interactions with diverse others are at the greatest risk. After all, biases are typically levied at individuals who are seen as ‘different’ from oneself). However, it is not merely enough to interact with different groups of people from different cultural backgrounds, and with different experiences. It is important to be sensitive to other peoples’ individual experiences, and to try to see the whole person. This involves a three-step process:

  1. Separating the individual from the phenomenon associated with them (e.g. separating the ‘criminal’ from the crime or the homeless person from their homelessness)
  2. Suspending preconceptions about the phenomenon, and
  3. Learning about the individual on their own terms.

H O W   I   O V E R C A M E   M Y   B I A S

So, what can you start doing to overcome your bias? My story should help encourage you in taking the steps to make change. We have biases about people in all different kinds of situations and walks of life. For me, I always believed that criminals were psychopaths and that society needed protection from them. When I learned about the kinds of activities that are offered to people in jail, such as art therapy, drama classes, gym recreation and yoga, I thought this was a waste of money, and a privilege that should not be afforded to them. 

My biases changed when I interviewed people who had long jail sentences for violent crimes such as gang activity and manslaughter. First, I shocked to find that my expectations of what these people would be like were completely wrong. I had anticipated a group of uneducated, ill-bred individuals, but the people I spoke with were introspective, reflective, interesting, self-educated, and kind. These people were in the prison system due to circumstances and life experiences that would land almost anyone, including myself in jail.

A second shock related to the way that these people were treated, which was undoubtedly due to biased perceptions of them. The system treated these people like animals, and they had to fight to stay sane while incarcerated. In fact, if it were not for those programs and activities outlined earlier, they would have left as shadows of their former selves. The current prison system takes what is known as a retributive justice approach, which emphasizes punishment; what is instead needed is a restorative justice approach, which focuses on healing and building relationships. I would never have recognized this need if I allowed my biases to shape my views. So, the message is: meet other people, treat them as individuals, and understand their situations, before judging them.


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