Blog one of three in a series on "Managing Bias".
An embarrassing thing happened to me recently. I was exchanging text messages with a professional acquaintance. Mid-conversation, I recalled his much lauded performance at a recent event and congratulated him. Except that it wasn't him. It was another mutual friend. They do not resemble each other nor are their specialties the same. What they have in common is that they are both male, Singaporean speakers.
I was mortified! I work extensively in bias and pride myself on being thoughtful, people oriented and having high EQ. How could I have been so obtuse? Especially given that I am frequently confused with two other women who look nothing like me and don’t have much in common other than that we are female, Indian inclusion advocates.
I apologised profusely and ended the exchange quickly in my desire to get away from the embarrassment.
I hadn't meant to offend him. Chances are people who mistake me for my friends don't either.
My curiosity kicked in.
How could I made the same mistake that annoyed me?
Why does this happen and what can we do about this?
We understand now from studies about implicit memory that our memories often encoded like filing systems. People, things, events are categorised, tagged and stored by association. When needed, our brains quickly retrieve memories by emotional, semantic or conceptual association similar to the way we use tags on social media.
This is why your grandmother may have called you by the names of your cousins before stumbling to your name. In grandmom's brain, all children of the family are likely filed with the tags "kids, love" so the names come out together. Similarly, my professional acquaintances likely remember me by the "female, Indian, inclusion advocate" association.
Much of this process happens almost automatically and is pervasive with profound consequences. Dr. Mahzarin Banaji and team at the Harvard's Project Implicit have conducted seminal research on implicit associations our brains make when processing information and their impact on how we make decisions. While not all associations are necessarily negative, the influence they have on how we perceive, process and respond to situations is immense.
1) Awareness of these associations and how they may get activated and play out is the first step in managing bias. What might be some automatic associations in your thinking?
In times when we are busy, overwhelmed, distracted, tired, excited, anxious or fearful, we are more likely to rely on our brains to do some of the heavy lifting for us. By automating some decisions, we are able to juggle all that we are attempting to multitask. This is what Dr. Daniel Kahneman calls System 1 thinking in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. All humans have the tendency to rely on this automatic thinking process but it is not necessarily accurate or efficient. It leads us to make mistakes.
2) Mindful Processing is the second important step in managing bias. To catch ourselves slipping into System 1 thinking and doing the hard work of applying rational, logical thinking for important things.
In that embarrassing exchange I mentioned earlier, instead of hurrying away, I could have explained that I made a mistake and taken the time to gather more personal details of the person I was speaking with so that next time I have more details to remember about them.
When meeting new people, it is useful to slow down and have more meaningful exchanges so that we know and remember people by what matters to them as individuals, beyond just obvious markers like place of origin or profession.
Mistakes happen. We often overestimate our own good intentions and are quick to forgive and excuse ourselves while judging others for their mistakes much more harshly. This is called Attribution Bias. For example, this is how when we are late we believe there is a good justification for it. But when it happens with others, we assume it is because they are inefficient.
3) Considered Action is the third important key to managing bias. Owning our mistakes, trying harder next time and assuming good intent of others when they slip up Let us be mindful in our efforts to do better and try to extend the benefit of doubt to others.
Doing so takes conscious effort. One way to embed this habit is to separate facts from judgements, opinions, and emotional reactions. Another is to ask yourself, "If I were on the other side, how would I want to be judged or treated?"
In my case, I resolved to be more careful to find out and remember interesting details about people so that I can do better with remembering important distinguishing details that make them unique and special. I will also be mindful not to be annoyed when people mistake me for my friends.
I'd like to leave you with these questions:
1. What are your tips for remembering meaningful details about the people you meet?
2. What are your experiences with bias in daily life?
3. What can you do to be more mindful about bias in your own actions?
Blog 1/3 on Managing Bias