Behavioral Science

Reckoning with Bias, Part 1: Leveraging Curiosity.

In Part 1, we look at the science behind cognitive biases and propose a research-based approach to de-biasing teams.


In Part 1 of this series on bias in the workplace, we look at the science behind cognitive biases and propose a research-based approach to de-biasing teams. We argue that the proven value of curiosity for overcoming bias can be used to understand and improve team health, alongside data analytics. In Part 2 of this series, we consider how these ideas and tools can be used to address the challenges of working in virtual and hybrid teams.    


 

Scientific literature offers a staggering number of studies regarding our unconscious biases about other people. It’s been proven that women in leadership roles are punished for traits we would consider praiseworthy in men - compared to male managers, female managers are seen as arrogant rather than confident, and domineering rather than assertive. Biases manifest in the hiring process, too - symphony orchestras hired more women and people of color when they adopted ‘blind’ audition practices, and in one Australian experiment, lesbian women were more than 10% less likely than straight women to be invited for job interviews. When the scientific journal Behavioral Ecology anonymized their review process, there was a 33% increase in the number of papers written by female authors accepted for publication. 

But are hiring managers really discriminating against the LGBTQ community, are orchestras really that sexist and racist? It’s very unlikely that they’ve decided en masse to make the world a more unjust and inequitable place. What these studies tell us is that even the most well-intentioned people can, and do engage in behaviors that harm others - you don’t need to actively and consciously resent a group of people to treat them unfairly. 

The reasons well-intentioned individuals engage in these behaviors are complicated, because the origins of bias are multifactorial and difficult to pinpoint. But we can’t afford to ignore these difficult questions - as the studies mentioned above demonstrate, biases have a profound impact on people’s livelihoods and wellbeing.  

 

The bias paradox. 

Addressing unconscious biases can be extremely difficult, because they are by their very nature invisible to us until someone points them out. They are the quintessential unknown-knowns; foundational beliefs about the nature of reality that we don’t realize we harbor. We also tend to see ourselves as less biased than others - social psychologist Emily Pronin has coined the term ‘bias blind spot’ to describe this phenomenon. In one study, over 600 Americans were asked to rate how biased they were compared to the average person - more than 85% of study participants believed themselves to be far less biased than their fellow Americans. 

The fact that our biases are invisible to us is what makes them so powerful. We start forming cognitive biases in early childhood and continue to do so throughout the course of our lives. This is because biases begin as heuristics - cognitive shortcuts that help us understand the world, based on the information we’ve absorbed through past experience. While heuristics are essential to problem-solving and a core component of cognition, they become problematic when they manifest as cognitive biases

But the fact that it’s human nature to form biases doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do to combat them. 

 

The science behind unconscious bias.     

We have to understand the problem before we can address it - fortunately, the subject of unconscious bias has received a great deal of scientific attention, and we can draw on this research to make our workplaces healthier and less biased: 

  • Simply acknowledging the existence of discrimination might help combat the problem. In this 2019 paper published in Nature of Human Behavior, researchers investigated how scientific evaluation committees made decisions about which candidates to promote. They found that evaluators who consciously believed in the existence of gender inequality did not discriminate against female candidates, while evaluators who denied the existence of gender inequality did. 
  • Recognizing our susceptibility to bias improves our decision-making and judgment. In this study on bias blind spots, it was shown that those who believe they are immune to bias are less likely to listen to advice or absorb anti-bias training. People in this group were also more likely to overestimate their abilities in comparison to their colleagues. 
  • Feeling emotionally or physically unwell increases our susceptibility to bias. Evidence shows that sleep deprivation, cognitive overload, and fatigue make us more likely to think and act in biased ways.  

The fundamental problem with bias and the greatest obstacle to addressing it is the question of how to recognize when we’re being biased - and about what. Based on the available evidence, we’d argue that a salient factor in de-biasing efforts is enhancing our curiosity. 

 

"Caring means becoming subject to the unsettling obligation of curiosity, which requires knowing more at the end of the day than at the beginning." Donna Haraway


Combating bias through curiosity.

We aren’t the first to point out that combating unconscious bias in the workplace requires us to be curious about and empathetic towards one another. People build relationships through everyday practice of curiosity by asking others about their thoughts and their lives with genuine interest: in social interactions, curiosity positively impacts the emotional state of conversation partners and encourages interpersonal warmth. One study of 274 people of color in the workplace found that the most inclusive leaders practice allyship through curiosity, an approach that leads to a greater sense of psychological safety and an increase in employee retention. 

Being more curious also increases our resistance to other cognitive biases. In this study of ‘politically motivated reasoning’, the authors found that, regardless of their position on the political spectrum, individuals who displayed a greater affinity for scientific curiosity were more capable of reassessing their pre-existing beliefs and adapting to new information. This can be related, we believe, to the ‘contact hypothesis’ of intergroup biases. The contact hypothesis (a well-established concept in social psychology) centers on the notion that increased contact between different groups will reduce and counteract biases; the more we learn about one another, the less biased we are. 

There is a complicated relationship here between being curious, connecting with others, and combating biases. Encouraging an attitude of curiosity within teams may lead to improved decision-making, better relationships between team members, and a reduction in biased behavior.

At Perflo, we’re interested in how these attitudes and everyday practices can be institutionalized, and what tools you’d need to do it. Combating bias in a purposeful way by leveraging research and technology can be done: When Nextdoor (a neighborhood-based social network) noticed that users kept posting reports of ‘suspicious characters’ based solely on race, they hired social psychologist and bias-expert Jennifer Eberhardt to consult. Based on her recommendations, the form for logging suspicious behavior was redesigned, requiring users to describe the behavior first and the appearance of the ‘suspicious person’ last - as a result, the incidence of racial profiling fell by more than 75%.

At Perflo, we’re on a mission to empower organizations to build workplaces where curiosity is systematic, intentional - and above all, solution-oriented. This is why we want to first and foremost empower team leads to make their empathy and curiosity actionable, by delivering bias-free insights about team health based on ongoing anonymous micro-feedback. If you’d like to see how we can help you stay curious, head over here for a free demo.

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