Posted by Steve Lettau on May 11, 2022

by Louis Greenstein

Most of us associate the word "bias" with bad things like racism, sexism, and homophobia. 

To social scientists, however, those things go beyond bias; they're bigotry. Social scientists define bias as a preference, and without it, well, imagine how long it'd take you to place an order in a restaurant. 

Psychologist Matt Grawitch, director of strategic research at Saint Louis University's School for Professional Studies, says our brains evolved to make decisions quickly, based on small amounts of information. And in prehistoric times, experts believe that the more someone seemed like us, the less dangerous we assumed them to be, whether or not this was true. 

But many of our prehistoric tendencies aren't necessarily good for us today. Studies have shown that the most diverse companies are more likely to outperform their competitors. And you may have a bias toward burgers and against vegetables, but that doesn't mean you should only eat burgers or hate vegetables. 

Part of being a modern, evolved human or organization might mean avoiding some of the things we're biased toward and seeking out alternatives.

While we are often bad at spotting our own biases, we can learn to distinguish bias from bigotry and keep it from negatively affecting our decisions. 

Here are some tips for keeping bias from becoming a detriment. 

Recognize that it’s hard. We are largely unaware of our own biases, even when they are brought to our attention, says Cory Clark, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania. Clark often asks a classroom of students to rate themselves relative to the others in the room on friendliness, attractiveness, sense of humor, and other factors, and it invariably turns out that they all consider themselves above average. "Almost everyone is a six or above," Clark says. Then she shows them the results and points out that it’s impossible for 100 percent to be in the top half on each trait. Having revealed their bias, she asks them to rate themselves again. The vast majority still rate themselves as better than average. "Everyone is on board with the idea that people are biased," says Clark. "But it’s always the other group!"

Beware of group-think. Psychologist Matt Grawitch says the risk of bigotry grows when our circle is made up of people who look, think, and sound too much alike. "When everyone has the same bias," he says, "you’ve created an echo chamber."

Ask yourself: Is it true — or safe? Clark says that earlier in our history, our biases tied us to our clan, our tribe, or what psychologists call our "ingroup." And disagreeing with your ingroup could get you cast out — or worse. Today, that bias toward our ingroup creates the potential for us to distort the information we process and to feel frustrated when others don’t see things as we do.

Consider whether the bias is good for you, or for the group. Bias may have favored evolution, but not necessarily the individual. Squirrels are biased, says Clark, "to think everything is a predator." So while fear of predators may promote the survival of the species, it might make an individual squirrel disadvantage itself by staying away from a human who's trying to help it.

Set policies. "We can't rely on our self-awareness," says Gail Tolstoi-Miller, founder of a staffing-strategy firm. One way to combat unconscious bias is to follow processes developed by a diverse group. "Diversity isn’t just identity," she says. "Decision-makers must have diverse thinking." This is especially true for hiring decisions. A diverse group of interviewers can help put unconscious bias to the side. 

Encourage robust discussion. "Organizations need to cultivate a culture that encourages and even celebrates constructive debate," says Michael Diaz, founder of Delco Business Solutions, in Folsom, Pennsylvania. "If an organization’s culture empowers team members to question each other's assumptions, regardless of where they fall on the organization chart, the negative impact of bias will be minimized."