A Bias Against Bias

disbalance (high resolution 3D image)
disbalance (high resolution 3D image)

By Dr. David Rock, Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson, and Camille Inge

"I think implicit bias is a problem for everyone, not just police..." said Hillary Clinton, at the first presidential debate. While the claim ruffled some listeners ('Wait, did Hillary Clinton just call us all racist?'), it truly appalled one listener in particular: Mike Pence. At the VP debate, Pence called Clinton out for her "bad mouthing." "The demeaning accusation" of implicit bias "has got to stop", he stated.

Clinton proposed that we're all implicitly biased. Pence proposed that being called biased is demeaning to all of America. But which one of them is out of line? Does Clinton owe us an apology? Or does Pence just not get it?

To answer this question, let's do some fact checking based on the seat of bias, the human brain. The word bias linguistically derives from the Greek word for oblique, as in a diagonal line -- as in the shortest distance from a to b. We've developed many kinds of biases to help us navigate the world with marginal effort. Without these mental shortcuts, the brain would exhaust itself. This is because simply making a conscious decision uses up a surprising amount of mental energy; the prefrontal cortex (PFC) -- the hub of rational decision-making -- is highly efficient, but easily worn out. Consulting your PFC for something is like consulting a world-renowned lawyer. The quality-work-per-minute rate is high, but so is the dollar-per-minute rate. You can get a lot of good results out of it, but before long you run out of money and have to go back to texting an enthusiastic Law & Order fan for advice. Biases, while fallible, are automatic and unconscious, which means that they can still function on low battery. So while logical reasoning is our desired way of making decisions, more often than not, decision making is automatic, unconscious, and unintentional. Implicit bias is what's to thank for our general ability to guess which of our friend's kitchen drawers is for utensils. But it is also to blame for our general tendency towards stereotyping.

Biases develop from our experiences, and they tend to be exaggerations of perceived trends into universal truths. What's tricky is that these biases have a cyclic effect -- first, availability bias leads us to believe the information that's most readily available as true. Then, once we believe something to be true, our confirmation bias makes us discount exceptions, even when exceptions begin to outnumber the rule. Furthermore, our bias blind spot makes it nearly impossible to even recognize when these biases are occurring. This is a significant point: We don't have the mechanisms to make a decision, and at that same moment notice if our decision is biased. It's similar to the way we can't solve two even simple math problems at the same moment.

While we rarely see ourselves being biased in real time, we can often see evidence of biased decisions in hindsight. (Most of us have noticed that it is possible to feel very right about something and later discover we were very wrong.) Because we rarely feel biased ourselves, and because bias has a nasty stigma, we are easily offended when people suggest we are biased. Yet the facts are, scientists have discovered over 100 biases built into our brain. All brains. Bias is a deeply ingrained and deeply necessary part of our cognitive machinery. It comes down to one simple fact: If you have a brain, you're biased.

So does Clinton owe us an apology? The facts don't support that. Perhaps she did us a service. Implicit bias is an everyone problem, because it is a brain problem. And it was brave to address that problem, as politicians rarely tell us things that make us uncomfortable. Yet discomfort -- the cognitive dissonance that tells us two things that should fit, don't -- is necessary for behavior change. It was accurate of Kaine, Clinton's VP candidate to counter Pence with "People shouldn't be afraid to bring up issues of bias in law enforcement, and if you're afraid to have the discussion, you'll never solve it."

Labs around the world are busy studying bias in great detail. We now know more than ever about how to mitigate bias, though the steps we need to take require some focus and commitment. Breaking bias is hard, because biases are complex. But it is possible, and it is important. Corporations everywhere are investing time and effort to break bias, because they know it matters for innovation and performance. In the public sphere, lives depend on it. Our biggest disasters from oil spills to plane crashes to fighting wars often have unfortunate biases at their heart in hind sight. We have much to learn about bias, but we also know more than enough that we shouldn't be ignoring the science. One thing is clear: what doesn't work is to pretend that bias is not a problem. We can't be biased against bias anymore.

The authors will be talking about the science of breaking bias and accelerating inclusion at the forthcoming Neuroleadership Summit in NYC. Watch it online for free November 2 and 3 at summit.neuroleadership.com.