The 3 Things That Happen With Bias (And What to Do About Them)
There is a lot of talk these days about bias tied to cultural identities like race and gender—but for many people it’s unclear what bias is, how it works, and where it shows up.
Because our ability to interrupt bias affects how inclusive, authentic, happy, and successful we are, I want to clarify how bias works, and what each of us has the power to do about it.
What is Bias?
Simply put, bias refers to the mental shortcuts our brains take in decision-making. When we’re talking about inclusion, bias refers to how these mental shortcuts impact the way we treat others—especially people who are not like us. Bias also impacts how we treat ourselves, because we’re subjected to others’ judgments about who we are.
Ultimately, there are three primary things that happen with bias: we dish it out, we receive it, and we internalize it.
Dishing Out Bias
When we dish out bias, we judge people based how we categorize their cultural identities, both consciously and unconsciously.
When we meet someone, in under a second our unconscious brain will categorize that person into “like me” (the “us”) or “not like me” (the “them”) based on attributes like race, gender, and age. The moment the brain says, “Like me,” we treat the person nicer and more empathetically faster than if it says, “Not like me.” But when the brain puts someone into the “not like me” group, we proceed with caution, care, and apprehension in how we interact with them.
We do this because, even though we’ve greatly evolved as a species, the reptilian brain is still part of us—and its purpose is to keep us safe from harmful stimuli in the environment. It thinks, "If you’re like me, you’re less likely to harm me, and if you’re not like me, you’re more likely to cause me harm." Because this is part of our neurology as humans, we’re all doing it.
We also absorb negative messaging about people’s cultural identities throughout our lives, which further entrenches them into our outgroups, and causes us to treat them less favorably (for example, stereotyping has caused many of us to associate certain cultural identities with being less able, less worthy, less competent and more).
But you can work to rewire your brain so that you’re not treating people less favorably just because they have, for example, a different race or gender than you.
First, you need to consciously identify what your biases are and then work to change your automatic judgments about people’s identities. A great first step is taking Harvard’s Implicit Association Tests (IATs), a leading tool for identifying unconscious biases. It's free, confidential, and will immediately tell you what your unconscious biases are in a range of areas, including gender identity, race, sexual orientation, nationality, and even weight.
I highly recommend that you take the IATs to help you figure out where you’re dishing out bias.
Every single one of us has bias coming our way, meaning that we’re being judged by others tied back to our cultural identities, personalities, learning styles, and more. Notably, because of forms of supremacy* that are entrenched in our society, some of us are on the receiving end of more bias and negative messaging than others.
When we fear that we’re being judged because of who we are, it causes us to suppress our authenticity.
The problem is, when we fear (both consciously and unconsciously) that we’re being judged because of who we are, it causes us to suppress our authenticity. We push down our differences in favor of sameness, which ultimately hurts us—and, frankly, makes us miserable.
One way to interrupt this is through what I call scripting. First, reflect on and identify the biases you believe you may be experiencing because of your identities. Then spend time planning what to say or do next time you’re in a situation where bias is coming your way, which will help to shield against it.
I often use scripting to deflect bias that reflects the intersection of my race, gender, and age, which I sometimes encounter when I’m training corporate leadership teams. In these situations, I make sure that within the first few minutes of speaking I mention my extensive experience and qualifications, and try to age myself by saying things like, “I graduated from school twenty years ago.”
Having this kind of script planned strategically in advance is a really powerful tool to interrupt the biases coming your way.
The least discussed aspect of bias is that we internalize it. When negative judgments and messages about who we are repeatedly come our way—about our cultural identities, personal attributes, personality traits and more—unfortunately, many of us come to believe them. We do this unconsciously or even consciously.
These negative messages become part of our neural circuitry, leading us to engage in harmful self-talk. We say horrible things about ourselves to ourselves—and this has a profoundly adverse impact on us.
It causes us to lean out instead of lean in. It causes us to self-censor. It causes us to feel like impostors. Which is why it’s critical to figure out where you have internalized biases—and exactly what the negative messages are that you’re holding in your own mind about yourself, and about your cultural identities.
To interrupt internalized bias, you’ll first need to tune in to what you’re telling yourself so that you can identify your negative narratives about who you are. What are you saying to yourself about yourself? How might this be tied back to messages you’ve received about who you are?
Luckily, Harvard’s IATs can be used to help you with this, too—because not only will the tests tell you where your unconscious biases are, but they will also help to identify where you have internalized bias about your own identity.
For example, we know from the race IAT (which examines preferences for White people over Black people) that fifty percent of Black people who have taken it have an unconscious preference for White people over Black people—which suggests that they have internalized negative messaging about their own identity.
Once you’ve identified your negative narratives, determine some positive truths about who you are that you can say to yourself to replace them. Repeating these positive truths when you catch yourself in a negative narrative will help you overcome the biases you’ve internalized by creating new neural circuitry in your brain.
I’m incredibly passionate about interrupting internalized bias—in particular because of my own journey with learning to overcome it. It’s critical that we start including this insidious aspect of bias in the conversation, because so many people struggle with it. (For more about my journey, and how I overcame the pain of internalized bias, see The Authenticity Principle.)
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After today, I encourage you to explore how these three aspects of bias are showing up for you. Identifying and interrupting bias is the first step to becoming more inclusive and empowered. When you do this challenging but rewarding self-work, you’ll be more inclusive of others, and you’ll be closer to living your best, most authentic life.
*A lot of us think of white hoods when we hear the word supremacy (which is also a mental shortcut in the brain—it’s a bias!) I’m referring to supremacy here as the ideology that some cultural identities are better than others. For example, with gender supremacy, the belief that cisgender men are better than women and transgender people.