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Rewiring hidden biases for better outcomes

Faculty | Feb 28, 2018 |

Can good people with good intentions still have biased thoughts?

According to Mahzarin Banaji, the answer is yes, which she proved during her presentation to Gabelli School faculty and administrators.

As a professor of social ethics at Harvard University, Banaji examines social attitudes and beliefs of adults and children, particularly in relation to group membership. In 2013, she published her New York Times bestseller, Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People.

It was that concept—well-intentioned people’s hidden biases—and her corresponding findings that she discussed at Fordham, as part of the business school’s mission to educate compassionate, global business leaders.

A major focus of the conversation was on hidden biases. They are the beliefs that live in the subconscious and are formulated due to various exposures throughout one’s life, whether encountered through personal experiences or the actions of another, like entertainment.

A bias is nothing more than a tilting away from neutrality,” Banaji explained.

It can, however, have a lasting impact, which she illustrated through her research. College recruiters may not find the best candidates for their institution because the right people didn’t even apply. A company may not hire its most qualified candidate due to someone’s name or race. A female business school student may unknowingly lower her ambitions when sharing them with men.

“There’s bias in the mind of the receiver and the applicant. We have to work with the very groups that are holding themselves back and educate those who are holding them back,” Banaji noted.

While the biases that hide in the subconscious may sound problematic—after all, control over the subconscious is difficult—change is possible because of the other element in Banaji’s findings: good people.

“Once we know that something is not okay,” she said, “it’s just a question of how long it will take us to do something about it.”

If the desire is there, good people can change. While biases are habits of belief, the brain is flexible and can alter them.

“We are capable of change by how many times we stretch those muscles,” Banaji shared.

She has seen this in action. Banaji has been leading subconscious-bias tests on sexuality, race, age, disability, and weight for the last 10 years throughout the United States. As the nation has become more exposed to hidden bias in its many forms, some subconscious biases have gone down, specifically surrounding sexuality and race. Still, biases regarding age and disability have not changed and weight bias has actually increased.

We cannot think that being aware of bias is enough. We have to put our weight into it and do the work.”

That work, Banaji says, is a matter of constant questioning. “When you see bias, question it, no matter who it is, including yourself.” She emphasized that people shouldn’t stop helping others; rather, they should question to whom they are lending the help.

To answer the question, then, yes, good people with good intentions can have biased thoughts. However, those thoughts can be rewired and, in doing so, create a more equal world.

As an educator of the next generation of leaders, the Gabelli School believes it has a responsibility to shine the light on bias because diverse teams produce greater outcomes, in and out of business.

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