The research on implicit bias is kind of scary. The research suggests that most people are biased. Worse, the research suggests that we are unaware of some of our biases. And further, the research suggests that our behavior is biased despite our conscious efforts to be unbiased. So I could be doing harm despite my best efforts not to do no harm! So yeah: I’m anxious. In this post — the first in a series about implicit bias — I’ll be talking about this bias anxiety.
In future posts, I’ll talk about the theory behind our implicit biases [Part 2], how implicit bias impacts the workplace [Part 3], over 25 practical debiasing tips from the scientific research [Part 4], and the practice of giving an encouraging feedback about our biases [Part 5].
Bias anxiety usually strikes me at the end of the workday or when I’m trying to fall sleep. Did I sustain a stereotype with that example? Did I trivialize someone’s bad experience with that joke? Did I cringe when that person told me to “have a blessed day”?
There’s only so much I can do to address a wrong when I’m trying to fall asleep. The best I can do is make a plan to address it the next day. So if it seems pretty clear that I need to address something, I schedule a time to do it ASAP.
For example, in some cases, I apologize to someone. Oddly, in the vast majority of cases, I find out that my anxiety was unnecessary: most people don’t even remember the thing that I was worried about. When I jog their memory a bit, they remember what I did…but they don’t think I did anything wrong.
“What? That wasn’t offensive. You were worried about that?!”
“Oh. That? Actually, I was glad you said that.”
Some of my family and close friends won’t be surprised by this result. My partner often tells me, “I bet you’re the only one who is worried about this.” A friend will reassure me: “Listen: I was there. You’re over-thinking this.”
WHEN IT’S PERSISTENT
There is something weird about this, right? The feedback I get from people suggests that I’m not as likely to mistreat people as I think I am. And yet the bias anxiety continues! If I was reasonable, the feedback would decrease my bias anxiety. Alas, it’s hard to be reasonable when I’m already in worry mode.
…I need to stay vigilant! If I talk myself out of worrying so much, then I’ll go on unknowingly mistreating people and I’ll never address it! So I’ll cultivate a habit of mistreating people. (…fast-forward a bit….) Therefore, every time someone is mistreated, it’ll be my fault!
Ok, so it’s not that bad, but you get the idea. It’s easy to lose perspective. It’s kind of like the fifth stage of “The 7 Stages Of Not Sleeping At Night”:
MAKING USE OF ANXIETY
One of the ways I deal with persistent bias anxiety is to turn it into something useful. One thing I do is what any good academic does when they often find themselves thinking about something: turn it into an academic “interest.” Wouldn’t bias anxiety make for fantastic conversation with colleagues?!
S: So what kind of research do you do?
Me: I’m into reasoning, willpower, and wellbeing.
S: Cool! I’m also into—
Me: Oh yeah! And lately I’ve been thinking a lot about being sexist.
[…we look around the room a bit…we take a sip of our drink…]
S: Hey, has anyone ever told you that you look like Neil Patrick Harris?
Seriously though, reframing the problem as an academic interest has benefits. For example, when I’m lying in bed at night worried about something that I cannot address right away, I can turn it into a fruitful thought experiment.
Imagine you could relive the moment: what would you do differently? If you were a bystander, what should you do? Now, imagine that a trolley is barreling down the track towards five innocent people,…
Once in a while this actually works. I stop worrying and start doing philosophy. And that usually means that I’m asleep in a jiffy, which isn’t without its costs.
“Eureka! That’s brilliant! I should definitely write this dow—ZZZZzzzzzzz…”
Occasionally bias anxiety strikes before I’ve settled into bed for the night. In these situations, it’s easy to sort through my thoughts by writing. (That’s basically what happened with this series: the anxiety hit me, so I started writing. A few thousand words later, I had a series of blog posts).
You get the idea. I worry. On good days, I find ways to put my worrying to use. On bad days, I just keep worrying. (Protip: in my experience, avoiding caffeine 10-12 hours before bed correlates with not worrying as much at night.)
You might be thinking, “Isn’t this series supposed to be about implicit bias? When are you going to start talking about that?” Good point! I’ll definitely talk about implicit bias in the next few posts. Thanks for humoring the self-disclosure!
Part 1: [Jump back to the top].
Part 2: What is implicit bias? Some background theory and empirical findings.
Part 3: How does implicit bias affect everyday decisions? Research suggests a few ways in which implicit bias can rear its head at work.
Part 4: What can we do about implicit bias? The research on de-biasing and counter-conditioning suggests that there are plenty of ways to prevent our biases from impacting our decisions.
Part 5: How can we address each others’ biases? It’s time for Feedback 101, featuring tips for developing a culture of helpful feedback and some examples of how to give feedback to one another.
Image: “Hipp, Hipp Hurra!” via Wikipedia, public domain