In an earlier post, I summarised the literature on the efficacy of training for managing unconscious bias. In sum, the research into unconscious bias training highlights two important considerations (i) unconscious bias training is necessary, but in itself not sufficient, for eliminating workplace bias, and (ii) some unconscious bias training programs are more effective than others. Specifically, training is most effective for managing unconscious bias when it incorporates bias awareness, or ‘a-ha’ activities that ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ participants how their subconscious preferences and beliefs drive their responses, and when it transfers evidence-based bias reduction and mitigation strategies. The social psychological literature provides us with a number of proven techniques for dismantling social categorisations and overriding bias that can be incorporated into bias training. This has not often been the case, however, with a large proportion of interventions focused on attitude change, assuming that behavioural change will follow. In this post, I present six-evidence based techniques for managing unconscious bias that can be used to strengthen bias training programs and improve outcomes.
Automatic and Controlled Processing
In social interactions, human beings process information via two routes. One route is automatic, largely driven by emotional factors, and activates well-established stereotypes. Our automatic social processing happens so quickly that it is below our level of consciousness, well below 100ms and as quickly as 30ms. Automatic social processing can influence our immediate judgments and behaviours without us even knowing it. In social settings, stereotypes and associated prejudices and discriminatory responses occur fast and outside of conscious awareness.
However, the good news is that we can override our reflexive responses with controlled and deliberate thought or reflection. When we are motivated to be fair and unprejudiced because of either a strong internalised belief that it is morally correct to treat others fairly or because of strong social norms and legal restrictions against expressed prejudice and discrimination, we can engage controlled mental processes to override biased reflexive responses.
Brain imaging research shows that although activation of the part of our brain responsible for detecting fear and preparing for emergency events (the amygdala) is greater for racial out-groups compared with racial in-groups when images are presented to individuals who had previously expressed pro-diversity and equality beliefs for only 30ms (below the level of conscious awareness), when the faces are shown for 525ms, there is no difference in amygdala activation when viewing images of racial out-groups compared with in-group images. Rather, at 525ms, racial out-group images activate greater activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with cognitive and behavioural regulation, indicating the motivated individual is able to override initial and automatic reflexes by slowing down and engaging controlled processing.
Overview of the SPACE2 Model of Mindful Inclusion
The SPACE2 Model of Mindful Inclusion is a collection of six evidence-based strategies that activate controlled processing and enable individuals to detect and override their automatic reflexes:
- Slowing Down — being mindful and considered in your responses to others
- Perspective Taking — actively imagining the thoughts and feelings of others
- Asking Yourself — active self-questioning to challenge your assumptions
- Cultural Intelligence— interpreting a person’s behaviour through their cultural lens rather than your own
- Exemplars — identifying counter-stereotypical individuals
- Expand — the formation of diverse friendships
While prompting individuals to remember the six techniques, the SPACE2 acronym reinforces a key message—to manage bias, individuals must create space between their automatic reflexes and their responses.
(i) Slowing Down
Because controlled processing is deliberate and much slower than automatic processing, there remains a possibility for reflexive and immediate biased responses, even in individuals who endorse egalitarian values, particularly when under time pressure. Studies show greater discrimination in selecting applicants from resumes when the assessors report feeling rushed. Individuals who are seeking to manage their biases must slow down their responses and refrain from making key talent decisions when rushed.
Also, as controlled processing requires more mental resources, when an individual is mentally taxed or fatigued, it is less likely that their implicit biases will be effectively overridden. That is, when we have limited cognitive resources available for social perception (for example, because we are distracted by another mentally-taxing task, or under emotional or physiological stress), we tend to rely more on stereotypes to make judgments and guide our behaviours. Don’t make key decisions when busy, anxious or in a negative mood.
Unconscious bias is also more likely to manifest as discriminatory behavior when it can be justified or rationalised on non-discriminatory grounds. When assessing the suitability of male and female candidates for different roles, for example, assessors are more likely to redefine the criteria that constitutes “merit” for the role to fit the profile of the candidate of the preferred gender. Act with a conscious intent to be fair and be particularly vigilant in situations where your biases are likely to be most influential.
Conscious attempts at suppressing bias are more effective at inhibiting some prejudiced and discriminatory responses but not others. Conscious intention can help to overcome our verbal responses, but our non-verbal behaviour and judgments are much more difficult to control. Subtle discriminative responses—for example, feelings of discomfort, exclusion, and avoidance—may leak out during our exchanges with outgroup member. Mindfully monitor your micro-biases, including, eye contact, smiling, mobile use, body language, interruptions, when interacting with people who are different to you.
Neurocognitive studies have demonstrated that we all possess an ability to mimic automatically the emotions, thoughts, and actions of others. From an evolutionary perspective, this ability to synchronise our intentions and behaviours with others enhances our social functioning that, in turn, increases our chances of survival. Research shows, however, that although we automatically simulate the mental and motor activity of ingroup members, this process is much less responsive to outgroup members. Fortunately, with conscious effort, we can make up for this deficit in intergroup sensitivity. Perspective-taking refers to the ‘active contemplation of other’s psychological experiences’—that is, thinking and imagining the feelings and viewpoints of others. It is now well-established that perspective-taking has positive implications for intergroup relations including increased empathy, reduction of unconscious prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory behaviours, and decreased activation of negative stereotypes. Perspective-taking works by enhancing ‘self-other overlap’—the merging of one’s cognitive representations of their self-concept with representations of outgroup members. In this way, social category boundaries become blurred and they become me. Outgroup members are now perceived to be more like the self, and are more likely to be afforded the positive favoritism usually reserved for ingroup members. This effect can generalise to other outgroup members because the individual is perceived as a prototype for the wider group.
(ii) Ask Yourself
Prompts or questions that encourage us to examine our assumptions when assessing others or making decisions that will impact their careers helps to bring our biases into conscious awareness. Howard Ross suggests that individuals engaged in high-stakes decision-making about others should always stop to ask themselves:
- Does this person remind you of yourself?
- Does this person remind you of anyone else? Is this positive or negative?
- Are there things about this person that particularly influence your impression? Are they really relevant to the job?
- What assessments have you already made? Are these grounded in solid information or your assumptions?
Also, pay attention to objective information. Focus on skills and actively challenge any assessments you have made by seeking evidence that backs up or contradicts that assessment.
(iv) Cultural intelligence
Psychologists label the tendency to attribute a person’s behaviour to innate character flaws or personality traits rather than to contextual influences the fundamental attribution error. When explaining a person’s behaviour, we typically give more weight to dispositional influences than external causes—John is late because he is unreliable, rather than John is late because of bad traffic. Although our behaviours are often influenced by factors external to the self, we are quick to judge a person’s actions as reflective of their character rather than situational causes. This is because people are the most salient object to us during an exchange, whereas contextual influences are less obvious.
When we work across cultures, the risk of making the fundamental attribution error is high. When working with culturally diverse others, we routinely attribute their behaviours to innate dispositions rather than to their cultural conditioning. We can counter the risk of making the fundamental attribution error when working across cultures by actively seeking culturally appropriate explanations for behaviour. While perspective-taking for empathy focuses on the emotions of the other person without reference to cultural differences, making culturally appropriate attributions focuses on understanding the other person’s perspective through their cultural frame of reference. Imagining the world from the perspectives of others helps you transcend the automaticity of your own cultural framework and to interpret their intentions and behaviours more accurately, reducing misunderstandings, misattributions, and conflict. Differences are less likely to be labeled as deviant, stereotyping and bias is reduced, communication is enhanced, and suspicion and distrust are minimised.
Prompts can help individuals to improve their cultural perspective-taking by encouraging them to reflect on how culture might be affecting their counterpart’s values and beliefs, for example,
‘Before you decide how to respond in this interaction, write down a few sentences describing your counterpart’s interests and concerns as a person living within their culture. Now consider how your counterpart’s behaviours and decisions in this situation may be guided by his or her cultural values and beliefs’.
Prompts are useful when planning for intercultural interactions. They can also be used to encourage monitoring in real-time exchanges with others.
Multiple studies have shown that the accessibility of automatic and unconscious stereotypes is reduced by engaging in counter-stereotypical imagery. In one example, being instructed to imagine a strong women led to less accessibility of an automatic ‘weak-women’ stereotyped association as measured in the implicit association test. Within a training environment, counter-stereotypical imaging can be introduced as a unconscious bias intervention. Outside of the classroom, using communication channels to celebrate and acknowledge the successes of individuals from underrepresented or stereotyped groups can help to dismantle implicit bias by weakening the association between the group and the stereotyped behaviour.
Studies indicate that the formation of intergroup friendships can help to dismantle social categorisations and decrease bias. Activities that encourage diverse individuals to share information about their unique backgrounds, experiences, and skills promotes individuation of outgroup members such that they come to be considered as individuals rather than as a member of a broader social category. Under this approach, the focus moves from “one of them” to “you and me”.
There is another mechanism by which relational-based activities decrease the tendency for bias. Studies have shown that social categories can become more inclusive by inducing a positive mood state. There are a couple of reasons why this occurs. Firstly, we are attracted to people that we associate with feeling good. Secondly, a positive mood enhances our cognitive flexibility and leads to broader and more inclusive categorisations.