Bias and the Brain: What We Can Learn from Neuroscience about Undoing Bias

Earlier in my career I worked in an organization for a senior leader who was a white male. The CFO of the organization, also a white male, reported to my boss, and the second-in-command to the CFO was an African American woman named Allison. My peers and I could see that the CFO was a slacker. He never got back to people or produced the deliverables he promised, and he was rarely in the office. Allison did his work and her own, and everyone knew to go to Allison if they wanted results. And her work was impeccable. I was relieved when, after about five years, the CFO resigned. I was shocked, though, to discover that my boss was not even considering Allison as the CFO’s replacement. When I asked why not, he explained that he did not feel Allison had enough experience to handle the CFO role. He could not see that Allison had been operating as the de facto CFO for years. This story is an example of the impact that bias can have. A recent article by Heidi Grant Halvorson and David Rock defines biases, which we all have, as nonconscious drivers that influence how people see the world. The authors explain that biases “exert their influence outside of conscious awareness.” My boss could not see Allison’s talents and contributions, even though they were as plain as day to my peers and me. Let’s take a look at what types of biases may have been operating to make it difficult for the boss to really see Allison and what neuroscience can tell us about how to overcome biases in organizations. Scientists have identified five common biases:

  1. Similarity Biases—The two most prevalent forms of similarity bias are ingroup and outgroup preferences. In other words, “people like me are better than others.” This bias results in being more likely to hire and promote people we perceive as similar. Allison’s boss may not have been able to “see her” because she was different from him in at least two visible ways—race and gender—making it doubly hard for her to be visible to him.
  2. Expedience Biases—This form of bias results in making decisions based on what information is immediately available in the brain and what “feels right,” rather than taking the time to research or check out other perceptions.
  3. Experience Biases—People with this form of bias tend to assume that what they see is all there is to see. It is possible that Allison’s boss had never known or seen a CFO who was an African American woman and couldn’t imagine that this was a possibility.
  4. Distance Biases—This form of bias often manifests as a tendency toward short-term thinking.
  5. Safety Biases—Our brains have learned to avoid loss. Consequently, we reflexively choose what feels safe. She probably did not feel like a safe choice to him.

How to Mitigate and Manage Bias

The authors, Halverson and Rock, note that “there is very little evidence that educating people about biases does anything to reduce their influence.” They note that US companies spend $200 million to $300 million a year on diversity and sensitivity training programs. Because “human biases occur outside of conscious awareness,” training programs do not change individual ability to be aware of bias. What does work? For individuals, when you notice feeling distant or uncomfortable with people who seem different than you, look for commonalities with them. Discover the goals, values, experiences, and preferences that you share. The authors explain, “this causes the brain to recategorize these individuals” and recognize them as being affiliated with you. For organizations, the authors suggest that it is important “to cultivate an organization-wide culture in which people continually remind one another that the brain’s default setting” may be stuck in a belief that requires reflection and examination to see what else could be true. Allison’s boss was challenged by a large number of people in the organization about his belief that Allison was not experienced enough to be the CFO. It took a lot of pressure from a lot of people, but he finally relented and promoted her. He was very surprised to discover how capable she was—but he had been blinded by his biases. And we all are blinded by biases. We all need help from friends and colleagues who will challenge us to ask, “what else could be true?”   Image courtesy of stockimages at]]>