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“But I am a good person…” Managing bias in daily life

Blog one of three in a series on "Managing Bias".

manage bias in daily life

Have you ever wondered how to manage bias in daily life? Have you ever experienced accidental bias? Let me tell you a story…

Recently, an embarrassing incident unfolded in my professional life. Engaged in a text conversation with a colleague, I mistakenly attributed a colleagues recent triumph at an event to him, only to realise that I had confused him with another friend. These two individuals share no physical resemblance, nor do their areas of expertise align. The common thread between them is their gender and nationality, both being male Singaporean speakers.

This mishap left me mortified. As someone deeply involved in addressing bias and priding myself on my thoughtfulness, people-centric approach, and high emotional intelligence, I found myself questioning how I could have made such an oblivious error. Particularly ironic, considering I've often been confused with two female friends who bear no physical resemblance to me and share little beyond being female Indian advocates for inclusion.

I immediately extended a heartfelt apology and concluded the exchange in my haste to escape the embarrassment. However, my curiosity was piqued.

How could I, someone who detests being mistaken for others, commit a similar blunder? We all learn to manage bias in daily life when faced with it, but I just could not believe I made this mistake myself.

The answer lies in our implicit memory and how it processes information. Our minds operate like a filing system, categorising, tagging, and storing people, objects, and events based on associations. When we need to recall something, our brains swiftly retrieve it through emotional, semantic, or conceptual connections, akin to using tags on social media.

For instance, your grandmother might inadvertently call you by your cousins name, as both are tagged under 'kids' and 'love' in her memory. Similarly, my professional acquaintances likely remember me through associations like 'female', 'Indian', and 'inclusion advocate'.

manage bias in daily life

Much of this process happens almost automatically and is pervasive with profound consequences, making us wonder how to manage bias in daily life better. Dr. Mahzarin Banaji and the team at 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.

manage bias in daily life

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 managing 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


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