A picture of an older version of the Battleship boardgame box cover, whose covers shows a father and son playing the boardgames while a wife and daughter do chores in the kitchen.

Implicit Bias | Part 1: Bias Anxiety

The research on bias is kind of scary. It not only suggests that we are biased; It suggests that we are unaware of many of our biases. Further, it suggests that trying to suppress our biases can easily backfire. So, despite our best efforts, we could be doing harm. And yeah: that might provoke a bit of anxiety. That’ll be the topic of this post.

In future posts, I’ll talk about the theory behind our biases [Part 2], how bias impacts the workplace [Part 3], a dozen debiasing strategies from the research [Part 4], and a few tips for giving (and receiving) feedback about our biases [Part 5].

Related post: The Bias Fallacy (what it is and how to avoid it).

1.  What is bias anxiety?

By ‘bias anxiety’, I don’t mean some diagnosable condition. I’m not qualified to declare something a condition, let alone diagnose it. By ‘bias anxiety’, I just mean to refer to those moments when I become worried that I might have behaved in a biased way without realizing it.

  • Did I just discriminate against ________ without realizing it?
  • Was my explanation of so-and-so’s behavior based on an assumption about a whole group of people?
  • Did that joke trivialize an otherwise tragic experience?
  • When so-and-so asked me who has influenced my thinking, why did only white males come to mind?

2.  Can we suppress our biases? 

There’s only so much we can do to address a bias in the moment. Trying to suppress it can backfire because it can draw more of our attention to stereotype that is biasing us (Galinsky & Moskowitz 2000, 2007; Macrae, Bodenhausen, Milne, & Jetten, 1994).

NB: I will talk about lots of strategies to prevent our biases in Part 4 and Part 5. For now, I’ll finish talking about bias anxiety.

And since we’re often unaware of biases in the moment (Greenwald et al. 2002; Nisbett & Wilson 1977; Nosek, Greenwald, & Banaji 2007; Wilson & Dunn, 2004), we will probably not have the opportunity to apologize for our biases in real time.

So, in many cases, the best we can do is make a plan to address our biased behavior later on. We can, for example, talk to people who witnessed our behavior. I find that when I do this, people are thoroughly gracious. And most of the time, people either don’t remember me being biased and / or don’t believe that my behavior was biased in the first place.

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.”

3.  Is anxiety rational?

There is something weird about this, right? I will worry about my biases even though most people tell me that worrying is unfounded. You might think that if I was reasonable, then this feedback would eliminate my worry. I don’t disagree. I never said anxiety was rational. 😉

In fact, anxiety is sometimes extremely irrational. It can consume us and spiral out of control — a bit like the fifth stage of “The 7 Stages Of Not Sleeping At Night”. 😆

Stage 5 from "The 7 Stages Of Not Sleeping At Night" This is perhaps similar to my bias anxiety. http://www.collegehumor.com/post/7018090/the-7-stages-of-not-sleeping-at-night
(From College Humor)

4.  So what do we do about anxiety?

When I am worried about something, I tend to do what any good academic does about their anxieties: I do some research. And I’ve done quite a bit of research at this point — see Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. Perhaps someday bias will become one of my specializations. Wouldn’t that make for fantastic conversations with colleagues?

S: So what kind of research do you do?

Me: I mostly study reasoning.

S: Cool! I’m also into—

Me: Oh, and lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how I’m super sexist.

S: Uhh…o-o-o-ok.

[We each look around the room a bit and taake a sip of our drinks while we think of something else to talk about.]

S: Hey, has anyone ever told you that you look like Neil Patrick Harris?

Seriously though, reframing a worry as something to be studied and understood is helpful. For example, when I reframe my concerns about bias as an academic puzzle, I sometimes think up thought experiments.

Imagine you could relive the moment: what should you do differently? If you were a bystander, what should you do? […] Now, imagine that a trolley is barreling down the track towards five people from a marginalized group…(that last part was a joke about the trolley problem).

Once in a while thought experiments help. I stop worrying and start doing philosophy. That way I am not losing sleep over something that I can’t address until later on. Instead, I’m being productive — or maybe just planning my next blog post.

Another way I prevent anxiety is limiting caffeine intake. I find that caffeine makes it harder for me to halt automatic and intrusive thoughts. So when I drink caffeine, I do it first thing in the morning. That way the caffeine has worn off by the time I want to fall asleep and I am not kept awake by recurring thoughts about the day.

Conclusion

You get the idea. I sometimes worry about being biased. I’m often worrying unnecessarily. But I’m not entirely in control of what I worry about. So sometimes I make use of being worried about bias.

You might be thinking, “Isn’t this series supposed to be about bias? When are you going to start talking about that?” Good point! I’ll definitely talk about bias in the next few posts. Thanks for humoring the self-disclosure!

Series Outline

Part 1: [Jump back to the top].

Part 2: What is bias? What about implicit bias? This post is about the background theory and some empirical findings.

Part 3: How does bias affect everyday decisions? Research suggests a few ways in which bias can rear its head at work.

Part 4: What can we do about our biases? The research suggests about a dozen ways to prevent our biases.

Part 5: What about when we fail to prevent biases? What then? We can give (and receive) feedback. Here are some tips about how to do that well.

Published by

Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at byrdnick.com/blog

2 thoughts on “Implicit Bias | Part 1: Bias Anxiety”

  1. Interesting thoughts. My experience is more or less the opposite. Say, I say to Mr. X something like: “You know, your way of joking about the fact that zxy (who is 2 months old and is the son of a female colleague of both of us) is ‘already looking at girls’ and is therefore ‘a promising dude’ is not as nice as you might think” and he replies with a variation of “I did not think about it” (if he is nice) or “WTF”.

    Other similar cases: “You know, you invited less than 10% of women to your conference” or “You know, it is sort of wiered that you addressed me per email with “Sir”, thus assuming I am a man just because I organised a conference” (although my first name is clearly a woman’s one), or “Although I know you are on a wheelchair, asking Dr. YZ (a female colleague) to bring you a coffee although there were several men closer to you was… well, awkward”. The answers in such cases oscillated between resentful and surprised.

    1. Hi smef,

      I am so glad that you address these things!

      I am bummed to hear how poorly some people respond. I too have experienced surprisingly bad responses. When I asked a fellow conference organizer to include accessibility information and food information in the CFP, they pushed back pretty strongly. “If people have [accessibility/food] concerns, it’s on them to communicate them with us…We should just use the typical blanket statements like, ‘We want to make the conference accessible…please request accommodations at least one month in advance.'”

      Anyway, I think that addressing these situations can be enormously helpful. I even find that it helps when I am experiencing a bit of anxiety: hearing that I did something foolish quells my uncertainty about the situation and it gives me a chance to apologize (and do whatever else is appropriate).

      FWIW, I talk about the value of addressing these things in Part 5.

      Thanks, smef! I wish you well!

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