Getting “Below the Surface” to Break Bias Habits

Daniel Kahneman, PhD, Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences winner, states in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, that we have two systems of decision-making. He says that System One is unconscious, effortless, fast and uses patterns and associations to make decisions. As much as 95-98% of our time is spent in System One. On the other hand, System Two is conscious, effortful, slow, and utilizes logic and reason. Only 2-5% of our time is spent in System Two. Many negative biases and stereotypes about individuals and groups that we have accumulated throughout our lives are stored in System One and are, thus, hidden from our awareness. Therefore, it is imperative that we make them conscious by including System Two in the process to correct errors. The following are effective strategies cited in Long-term reduction in implicit race bias: A prejudice habit breaking intervention, Devine et al.:

· Replace stereotypical responses with non-stereotypical responses. Recognize that a response is based on stereotypes, label the response as stereotypical, and reflect on why the response occurred and how could the biased response be avoided in the future and replaced with an unbiased response.

· Individuation. Look for situational and personal reasons for a person’s behavior instead of assuming it comes from some inherent group based characteristic.

· Counter-stereotypic imaging. Pay attention to others that defy stereotypes. The strategy makes positive examples salient and accessible when challenging a stereotype’s validity.

· Perspective taking. Experience the world from the perspective of the stereotyped person or group.

· Increase opportunities for contact. Seek opportunities to encounter and engage in positive and authentic interactions with people different than you.

· Keep track of daily events in a journal. Review them over time to recognize patterns of choices, assumptions, reactions. Also, note biases of others.

· Get input from those who you trust. Ask them to share how they experience/observe you. Your children can be great sources of information, whether you want it or not.

Intentionally focusing on breaking bias habits by recruiting our System Two decision-making can be more effective than trying to change the biases themselves. Remember this is no quick fix. We are dealing with well entrenched beliefs, many of them from childhood. The research indicates that It can be particularly difficult for those who identify themselves as moral, ethical and caring people. A commitment to those values doesn’t prevent System One unconscious thinking from impacting you. In that regard, beware of three common obstacles: presumed objectivity, assumed meritocracy in your firm or organization and “blindness” (i.e. color, gender). Regarding the last example, if you are blind to race or gender than you are likely to be blind to racism and sexism.

The bias habit is not broken overnight and backsliding is part of the process. Instead of judging yourself, be curious about the process and celebrate the small steps of progress. Kahneman says that System Two is “lazy” so persistence is the key.

Good luck with this critical work!

Michael Kahn
Michael Kahn, M.Ed.,JD joined LAPBC in 2019.