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How To Recognize And Overcome Your Biases

People walk at Narino Square in Pasto, Colombia, on Jan. 7, 2018. (Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images)
People walk at Narino Square in Pasto, Colombia, on Jan. 7, 2018. (Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images)

Almost every day, there’s at least one story in the news that involves racism, sexism or another kind of bigotry. But when you hear those stories, do you think, “Well, that’s not me”? Turns out, even among the best-intentioned people, unconscious biases can exist.

So how can we identify these biases, and is it possible to overcome them?

“You can learn to address them — I’m not sure you unlearn them,” Patricia Devine (@DevineLab), professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin Madison, tells Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson.

Part of why that’s difficult is because biases are learned at a young age, Devine says.

“The reality is that children already know the stereotypes attached to various groups by the time they’re 4, 5, 6 years old,” she says. “And so they know that women are caring and nurturing, for example, and emotional, and men are strong and decisive and independent.

“We’re really inundated with these stereotyped messages, so that they’re so well learned they become firmly ingrained in your mind, so that they get activated and you use them without even being aware of it or realizing it.”

Interview Highlights

On how often it’s actually true when people say they’re not racist or sexist

“I think you have to make a distinction between what people commit to in terms of their values. And I think when you think about people’s values and whether they’re committed to equality and trying to create opportunities for others, most Americans would say yes. Unfortunately, however, we also are prone to making snap judgments about other people, sort of spontaneous, default, quick assessments of others, and those tend not to comport with our values all the time. They tend to look more biased than our values do.”

On an example of how we make snap judgments about people

“A former student of mine was responding to an accident on campus, she went to render assistance to a student who was hit by a car. And simultaneously, another woman came to render assistance. This woman was barking commands, she was saying, ‘Don’t move the head, call 911,’ and my student, who’s very committed to addressing issues of sexism, looked up at her and earnestly said, ‘Are you a nurse?’ You can imagine, the woman’s not a nurse, she was a doctor.

“But the nurse response is so easily provided by her socialization experiences, our learning histories, perhaps where, when she was younger, in particular, women were more likely to be nurses than physicians. But she knew from her own experience and her own beliefs that of course women could be doctors, her own physician was a woman. And in that moment, she recognizes she fell prey to that kind of default, habitual response that she disavows. She thinks it’s wrong. She shouldn’t have made that assumption. And yet in that moment particularly under high arousal, pressure, the stress of the accident, the easily supplied response was ‘nurse.’ So it’s just that quick assumption that people make that will influence how they think about others, how they treat others and as I said, the assumptions that they make that can diminish the experience of the other, or could constrain their opportunities if you’re not thinking that they’re capable of doing a wide range of activities, for example.”

On our capacity to address biases, but perhaps not unlearn them

“For example, I reject notions of racial biases and gender biases, and yet I’m still very well aware of the stereotypes that are attached to these groups, and they get activated pretty quickly. But if you think about these as habits of mind, you can take steps like you would to break other habits to try to address them, and so you need to become motivated. And that’s a personal decision, to try to overcome the kind of habitual response. You need to become aware of when it is that you display those types of responses, sort of tuning in to when it is you’re most vulnerable to showing bias. You have to have some strategies, some alternative responses, that you could enact, instead of the stereotypic bias. And then you have to work at it. You have to put some effort into it. But with the combination of motivation, awareness, strategies and effort, you can learn to regulate the expression of these stereotypic biases.”

On whether the U.S. as a country is getting better on the issue of bias

“That’s a great question, because we’re having a challenging time right now. Since the election in 2016, there seems to be a shift in what is normatively acceptable, at least in some circles. I think there’s been an unleashing of incivility and hostility in social media and other forums. But what I’ve been heartened by is the enduring commitment in many organizations that I’ve had the fortune to visit, where they stay committed to trying to create equality for all of their … whether it’s students in the university context, or whether we’re talking about employees in law firms and tech industries, the commitment to try to create circumstances where people can thrive in those contacts unencumbered by bias seems very strong to me. And so I think we’re persisting in those efforts, against a backdrop of some unfortunate shifts.”

On if she sees any bias in her own thoughts

“Sure, I mean I have to work at them just like everybody else does, right? I mean, there are times where gender or race biases might pop to mind, but I’ve become more efficient at spotting them, and I’ve become more efficient at stopping them and replacing them with responses that are more consistent with my values. I mean this learning history that we have with these biases, it starts very young, and it doesn’t really go away. I mean look at advertising in our contemporary culture, look at the media — whether you look at movie roles that portray characters in stereotypic ways, or television characters — I mean we’re still inundated or bombarded with these images, and so it’s sort of an ongoing process to become effective at regulating the expression of bias.”

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