Confronting our (Un)conscious Bias with Dr Lasana Harris
UCL Professor of Behavioral Science Dr Lasana Harris joins Brooke for this episode of the podcast. In a fascinating discussion that questions the ‘unconscious’ nature of what most psychologists would refer to as unconscious bias, Dr. Harris draws from research in the fields of neuroscience and social psychology to help explain why human beings experience bias, how it manifests in our behaviour, and what we can do to overcome it, beyond ‘box-checking’ debias training.
Some of the things discussed include…
- The neuroscience behind the origins of our bias. Hint: it relates to our natural ‘fight or flight’ response.
- Why we are often aware of our own bias, but tend to attribute it to the wrong factors.
- Debiasing – why most bias trainings provided by organisations are done to fulfill legal obligations or improve corporate image, and how they can be improved.
- Embracing our individual responsibility to educate ourselves around bias while acknowledging that systemic change is required to address the environmental factors that fuel it.
- The ‘statue debate’ and whether cancel culture is erasing potential lessons from the past, or a sign of progress in the direction of a more inclusive society.
The conversation continues
TDL is a socially conscious consulting firm. Our mission is to translate insights from behavioral research into practical, scalable solutions—ones that create better outcomes for everyone.
The danger of unconscious bias
“If I’m not aware of how it’s influencing my behavior, we have a dangerous problem because you could never convince me that I’m biased, right?”
The Contact Hypothesis
“If I can meet you on a level playing field and we can have some meaningful experiences where we’re often dependent on each other and we’re cooperating and interacting, then the bias is going to leave.”
Improving our efforts to de-bias
“Good training isn’t going to get the bias out of you, but good training is going to give you tools and strategies to combat it when it pops up: to help you detect it and to help you learn how to improve the experiences you have so that eventually you can reduce it or get rid of it. And now you’re motivated to fight for the structural changes that are also going to change the associations, which is informing the bias.”
Learning from our behaviour
“If you’re engaged in any kind of debiasing work within your institution or your company, data is crucial. You have to be able to detect where the biases are being manifested, because that then allows you to put structural rail guards to prevent people’s natural tendencies from resulting in behavior that is discriminatory.”
Shifting beyond bias and focusing on the wider picture
“Why do people become parole officers?”. Well, usually it’s because they want to help their communities. If we got the parole officers to focus on their communities rather than the race of the people coming through their door, then, again, they’re less likely to be biased. It’s kind of a distraction, right? You’re not giving the bias a chance to activate. You’re focusing on other things that are important.
Well, what we’re doing instead is taking advantage of the fact that human beings and human brains are really flexible. And when I’m standing in a situation looking at something, I can see it multiple different ways. And so, if my goals are made salient, goals that are important to me and the purpose why I’m having this interaction, if they are made salient, then it’s possible that in some cases we could sidestep the bias, right? And it doesn’t have to come into play at all.”
Structural and Cultural Change
“To get real structural changes, you have to think of it as culture change, and you have to reexamine everything that you’re doing within your organization, because at every decision point, there’s opportunity for discrimination and bias to seep in because, like you said, human beings are the ones in these decision points.”
Balancing Individual Responsibility with Systemic Change
“We all can start with ourselves and try to broaden our own networks and get more experiences and regulate our biases and be more aware of them. But we can also, when we’re in these positions, examine every single aspect of how we do business, and consider whether there’s a more interesting way of doing it.”
The Opportunity Cost of Discrimination
“To me, it’s not about justice or right. Those issues are important as well, but we’re facing real challenges to our species. How do we move forward and overcome them? To me, it starts with maximizing our potential. And we’re woefully failing to do that in many Western societies, because of structural racism.”
Brooke: Hello everyone, and welcome to the podcast of The Decision Lab, a socially conscious applied research firm that uses behavioral science to improve outcomes for all of society. My name is Brooke Struck, research director at TDL, and I’ll be your host for the discussion. My guest today is Lasana Harris, Associate Professor at University College London, and author of ‘Invisible Mind: Flexible Social Cognition and Dehumanization’. In today’s episode, we’ll be talking about bias and racial bias in particular: What is it, how does it work, and what can we do about it that actually works? Lasana, thanks for joining us.
Lasana: Thanks for having me, Brooke.
Brooke: Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your research.
Lasana: Sure. So, I’m a social neuroscientist, which means that my research uses the tools of neuroscience to try to answer social behavior questions. Specifically my research focuses on what we call social cognition, which is the ability we all have as human beings to figure out what somebody else is thinking or consider somebody else’s mind. In my work, we look at flexible social cognition, so our ability as human beings to regulate whether we bother to consider somebody else’s mind or not, but also how this ability to extends to things that aren’t human beings, so a process we call anthropomorphism, so our tendency to yell at our computers when they freeze like they have this morning, or to talk to our pets.
So essentially, what we’ve discovered is that social cognition can be withheld from people, and that’s a process we call dehumanization. So you’ve regulated it, or it can be extended to entities that don’t necessarily have minds like our own. And in my research, we essentially study topics related to these phenomena. So dehumanization, empathy, social biases, punishment. And we do so using a variety of techniques: brain imaging, physiology measurements, thinking of our economic gains. So it’s a very interdisciplinary approach to understanding this phenomenon.
Brooke: Really, really interesting. And I think that’s a great segue into today’s topic. So something that you’ve talked about in a previous interview that really stood out to me is that bias, as much as we talk about unconscious bias, isn’t actually unconscious. From the work that you’re doing, we can feel ourselves reacting. Can you talk us through that? What does bias feel like, and where do we feel bias?
Lasana: That’s a great question. So bias is inherently an emotional response, and we don’t have emotional responses that we’re not aware of. I mean, that defeats the function of emotion. So when I experience a bias response, what’s happening is a brain region called the amygdala is firing. And the amygdala is kind of like the burglar alarm in your head. It’s a vigilance detector, so it’s there to keep you alive. It’s there for your survival. And it’s going to fire at things in your environment that you should be paying attention to, things that are emotionally salient. And so the experience of bias often feels like a fear response or a fright response. And so, you have this very quick fleeting emotional response that I think most people are aware of. What often happens is that we can misattribute that emotional response. So if I feel this small fear response in the presence of a racial out-group member, I may misattribute it to something else in the environment or to another cause.
So if you consider, for instance, the heinous acts of police shooting of African-Americans. Those police officers are probably having that fright response when they see these individuals. But in that context, right, fright is a danger. It’s a signal that this might be dangerous, therefore it makes it more likely that they engage in the shooting behavior. So we can easily misattribute this bias feeling that we have. Particularly if we believe that we’re not biased, we don’t hold biases, and we don’t appreciate that biases aren’t necessarily the result of our personal choice. Fear is often learning processes based on the things that we see in our society and in our cultures. So the amygdala is also a central mechanism for learning. It’s what allows you to remember for instance, that the stove is hot, right? And so, you have this learning mechanism that’s casually absorbing associations within our culture, which is informing the biases, allowing us to have these bias responses to different types of out-groups. And it’s possible for us to then misattribute those responses. So the whole concept of unconscious bias is a bit of a misnomer.
Brooke: Okay let’s talk through, not the physiology which I think you’ve really covered very nicely, but more the lived experience of this. So for instance, the other day, as I was driving down the highway, passed by a police car and once I was a few hundred meters past the car, and I saw the lights go on and the car pulls into the lane. All of a sudden, there’s this super intense feeling in my stomach, like it feels like my stomach is dropping out from under me. And it’s just like this very intense fear response that I think a lot of people can identify and can resonate with that experience. They’ve had something like that happen to them in the past.
Would you say that the feeling of an unconscious racial bias is something along those lines? Obviously, the intensity is going to be different, but is that the kind of lived experience that you’re talking about, where it’s like I just have this feeling in my environment. Perhaps one, as you mentioned, that I’m not as consciously aware of in terms of which association is actually causing it? Like in the case of the police cruiser, I know immediately what it is that’s making me have this reaction. So in the racial bias example, are the differences twofold, then? The first is that I won’t be entirely sure about what’s causing that experience, and the second is that the intensity is obviously likely to be much lower.
Lasana:Yeah, I think the intensity point is a good one, right, because there are obviously individual differences. So while we’re all aware of the cultural stereotypes and associations that are informing the biases, we all have different lived experiences. Sso we have different rates of interaction with racial out-group members, for instance, which are also learning opportunities that can teach you and your brain that this isn’t a threatening stimulus. And so, I think there’s going to be a huge variety in how that bias is experienced, right? For some people, it may be as intense as you describe with the police. For other people, it may be as simple as a thought popping in their head that they should move away from this person or they should avoid eye contact or they should cross the street. So there’s going to be a varied degree of intensity and also locality.
So sometimes, like you say, the really strong emotional responses, you feel them in your body. But other times, you might just have a thought pop into your head. But regardless of how it comes across, we think that there’s enough evidence that given this is an emotional response, you’re still aware of it, to some extent. Then, the differences come in exactly as you described in the first part. How do you respond to this risk thought? So, I might be out and I have a fear response to police officers, but I know there’s nothing that I have to fear, right? I didn’t have an illegal drive. There’s nothing wrong with my vehicle. Maybe it’s the routine traffic stop, and those thoughts can quickly dissipate that emotional response. And so when you reflect on that experience, you may not remember the fear that it held, right, because that experience may have quickly been dissipated.
The same thing can happen in a bias context. So depending on how we engage with that emotional response when it first occurs, it may result in us amplifying it. It may result in us attenuating it. And when we recall that experience, again, we may not recall the emotional thought of it. We may recall the regulatory part of it. And so, there are lots of reasons why people may not recollect having this bias experience, for instance. In particular, if you have strong egalitarian beliefs, right, you don’t want to believe you’re the kind of person who can respond that way, and that’s also going to motivate you so that you don’t remember the initial terror response. So I think for all of us, it’s going to be a slightly different experience based on what makes us unique as human beings. But from the evidence we have in the psychology of neuroscience literature, it is an emotional response and we are aware of our emotional responses.
Brooke: Okay, that’s interesting. And let’s keep unpacking there. So we talk about them often as though they’re beneath the level of consciousness. But in fact, it seems like what’s actually happening is we’re not really attuned to the response. We have trouble identifying it as what it is. So we don’t know what to look for, and we struggle to recognize it. Is it possible for us to train ourselves to be more attuned to our reactions? Can we bring them back to the surface?
Lasana: That’s a great question. So the most popular approach to bias training has really centered around this idea of awareness. The concept is simply that if you make people aware of these biases, you make them aware that they have these biases, then we all have the ability as human beings to regulate those biases. So if I’m entering an interracial situation and I’m aware that racial biases exist because I live in a structurally racist society, then in that situation, I might be more attuned to those signals and better able to regulate them, because I’m aware of these biases.
The other thing I think that you can do which is really effective is reflect on your behavior.So one of the ways we learn about ourselves isn’t just through our conscious experience in the present moment. But we can often reflect on our behavior and learn something about ourselves. So if you notice, for instance, that in the last interracial interaction, it went much more brief than typical interactions may have gone, that may be a cue to you that the brevity of this interaction might be linked to bias, for instance. And so by observing our behaviors, it also informs us of when we’re more or less susceptible to acting upon these biases. And so, it is possible for us to rein these responses in. And now, that’s just taking the traditional approach to bias training. There are some more novel approaches that we’re developing that try to short-circuit the bias even before you have the response. But we have a lot more research to do to sort of make that work, I think.
Brooke: Let’s dive into debias training. So for a while, and I think probably even now, it’s still in vogue, this idea that we all need debias training. Do you think that those strategies are effective?
Lasana: So you have to ask yourself, why do we need the bias training? And if you have a social justice answer, then the trainings are inefficient. If you have a legal compliance answer, then the trainings are sufficient. So bias training really grew out of human resources, because of laws that are anti-discriminatory. So to ensure that my institution or company isn’t violating the law, HR puts me through this mandatory bias training, which really is just serving a checkbox function, right? It’s saying that, “As the employer, I’m now indemnified against your behavior because I’ve done what’s required so that you’ve had the training, in the same way that you’ve had the safety training for the building, and the ethics training for using the data, or whatever trainings necessary for your job.” But getting rid of biases, which are learned associations that are building up over our lifetime because you live in a particular context, you can’t get rid of that in a two-hour online session. That’s not going to go away as easily.
What’s required to change biases are structural changes. So we have to accept that we work in institutions, companies and within structures that were created when racism was a lot more rampant and accepted than it is now. And there are procedures, processes and mechanisms built into these institutions which are perpetuating biases. So a much more effective way of dealing with implicit bias within a company or an institution is to look up, “How does this institution or company function? And what are the practices that we can revise?” That’s a view of implicit bias training that doesn’t put the responsibility on the individual. So me as the person, I’m not responsible necessarily for getting rid of the bias, because I recognize the bias is built into the system. Now, that isn’t to take personal responsibility completely away. And this is where I think the awareness and the education piece comes in.
So I think what good implicit bias or debiasing training does is it makes people aware of the issues, if they’re willing to be engaged on the issues. Again, if it’s something I’m being forced to do because it’s mandatory, I might be less inclined to engage with the issues. But if I really want to debias myself and I’m willing to engage with these issues, then accumulating the awareness of how my brain works, how my body functions, how my thought patterns and emotions work, and why these biases appear for the first time, understanding the historical context. That information boosts my awareness and gives me the ability to come in and regulate. But it doesn’t solve the problem. The implicit bias is going to remain. The discrimination is going to remain. So it’s not necessarily a fix, even if it were done very well. So the concept of implicit bias training really satisfies a legal requirement, an HR requirement. But people have sold it as something that’s going to get rid of bias, and it’s not prepared to do that.
Brooke: Okay, there’s a lot there. So let me take a moment to sum up. First of all, you put forward this idea that the debias training is not going to be effective in making the bias go away. So for instance, I think a lot of people, probably disproportionately the people listening to this show, know about something called the The Muller-Lyer illusion, which are these two lines that have arrowheads pointing in and pointing out, and for your life, it looks like one of those lines is longer than the other, but when you learn that in fact they are the same length, it’s just this optical illusion. You don’t stop seeing it. They don’t all of a sudden start looking the same length. You’re just not fooled by the thing, even though you still see it. It sounds like what you’re talking about with debias training is something similar to that, like you won’t stop having the reaction, it just makes you more aware of your reaction, and it allows you to bring in an intentional override that you’re consciously applying overtop of this emotional involuntary, but conscious, experience of bias. Is that about right?
Lasana: Yes, that’s perfect. That’s exactly right. In fact, when we do debiasing training, we often use visual illusions to illustrate this broader function of how the brain works and the ability of your consciousness to come in and regulate that. But your illusion example is wonderful because, as you said, you never get rid of seeing the illusion, right? So even though I know it’s an illusion, I still see the lines as being a different length. And so, to me, that’s the problem I’ve always had with implicit bias training, like if you take the social justice angle and you say, “Well, we want to get rid of bias in society. We want to get rid of bias in individuals,” the best the current approaches can do is just build awareness. So it can help you regulate it, but then when you get into situations where regulation is more difficult, if you’re cognitively taxed, for instance, if you’re rushed for time; it’s much harder, then, to marshal the resources that you need to come in and quiet your amygdala.
And so because of that, recently some researchers and I have been taking a different approach where what we’re trying to do is stop the initial bias reaction from happening. Because just as you illustrated in the illusion, right, it’s possible to look at the illusion and see it a couple of different ways. So when I know that it’s an illusion, I can see the two lines as being similar. But if I don’t think about that knowledge for a sec, right, the illusion returns. And so I’m looking at the same thing in both cases, and that suggests that if I encounter, let’s say, a racial out-group member, one possibility is to see them based on the learning that I have. But there may be other possibilities to see them in different ways based on things like the goals I have in the particular situation, or other things that become salient in that interaction.
So interactions unfold over time. And what we’re arguing is that structural racism has meant that there’s this initial bias response. So what we’re saying is that even that initial bias response might be changed because the brain is that flexible, right? So there’s a lot of scope here, I think, for developing trainings that are going to better rid ourselves of these responses. But even then, I think it’s going to be ineffective because you’re returning to a society that’s still biased, and those associations are still out there, and so there’s a lot more learning of that happening. And so, real change has to be structural changes or societal changes.
Brooke: Okay, so this is fascinating. The point you’re making about debias training is that even though it’s not going to take away the biases, and we’ll explore a bit more your research in a moment about how to actually short circuit those biases from the start, but even if it doesn’t remove that kind of biased response, it still has value because it sensitizes us to the issue. But that can be very much moderated or attenuated if you feel that the training is something that’s forced on you and you’re not engaging with it in an authentic and genuine way. Does that mean that debias training only helps the people who are already seeking to get themselves out of this kind of bias perception situation?
Lasana: That’s a good question. I don’t have any data for it. If I had to guess, I would think it helps the people who are most unaware. So for some of us, we have egalitarian beliefs, we have interracial friends, and we tell ourselves, “We understand this”, right? And so, that blocks us from hearing the full picture that’s being communicated in some of these bias trainings. For others, we have absolutely no information; all we have to rely on are the cultural associations. And for those people, the bias training, I think, is more attractive because it’s bringing what seems to be more novel information.
So where you start also matters. And as I’ve been pointing out, right, there’s this ironic effect where the people that most want to make a difference are probably the ones that are going to be less impacted by it because they already think they’re doing things in the right way. And so, learning about the sociology, learning about the history, learning about the psychology, which is what most of the content of these trainings are, isn’t very useful to these people. But if you’re completely naïve and you haven’t really had any of this information, you can have more of an aha moment, let’s say. But this is only speculation at this point. I have no evidence for this.
There’s one tiny bit of evidence, if I’ll allow myself, from a researcher, Phillip Goff, who does a lot of research with police departments in the US. He’s looked at police officer trainings and he’s found that in the trainings, the police officers that were more likely to use violence were the more egalitarian officers. The ones who were more blatantly racist were less likely to use violence because they knew they were racist. They were very familiar with this bias response. So when they get it in that scenario, they don’t see it as a threat. They know it’s just their bias response, and so they’re much better able to regulate. So again, these examples, to me, are just a warning that egalitarian beliefs are not enough, right, and can sometimes get in the way or hamper the effectiveness of trainings.
Brooke: That’s interesting. It actually ties back to that police example that I raised earlier in our conversation. In fact, the police car was not pulling out to stop me, but in fact, a person two or three cars behind me. And when I noticed that, I was very much … my body continued to feel that fear response. Intellectually, I recognized that the threat was over, but my body continued to respond. Now, because the response was so strong, it was very clear to me that it was still happening, and it was very evident to me that I needed to bring in this kind of intellectual override; not that I was successful in doing so. It still took me a while to just calm down and relax. But it’s easier to recognize the thing when it’s incredibly strong. Actually, the most challenging response to attenuate is the one that lurks just below the surface.
Lasana: I think so, because it’s more diffuse and it can be misattributed to other sources. And I think another interesting thing about this police example, as well, is that oftentimes, our body is doing things our mind isn’t, right? And so, I can have a ton of egalitarian beliefs, but because I’ve had this learning built up inside of me, it’s affecting my behavior. And that’s really what it boils down to when we talk about bias, right? What we’re really talking about is not necessarily the feelings people are having. Those feelings are private. But it’s the behavior that those feelings drive, the discriminatory behavior.
And so, a bias that’s lurking just beneath the surface that I might be aware of, that I’m misattributing, but is still influencing my behavior, if I’m not aware of how it’s influencing my behavior, now we have a dangerous problem because you could never convince me that I’m biased, right? But like you are seeing, the data that suggests that people are. And so, I think this speaks to another point, which is if you’re engaged in any kind of debiasing work within your institution or your company, data is crucial. You have to be able to detect where the biases are being manifested, because that then allows you to put structural rail guards to prevent people’s natural tendencies from resulting in behavior that is discriminatory. So yeah, your police example is a good one for that, I think, as well.
Brooke: So, let’s dive in now to the more advanced research that you’re doing around how to short circuit those bias responses before they even manifest themselves. And one of the things you mentioned is that you can potentially work on debiasing somebody, but then they go out into the world, and the world that they’re living in is one that has these kinds of biases latent in it, and so they get re-exposed. So when you mentioned that idea, it made me think of some work that I’ve been doing around financial literacy, and this idea, “Well, we just need to improve people’s financial literacy, and then they won’t make as many irresponsible purchasing decisions,” and these kinds of things. But let’s think our way through that. You sit down and you do a two-hour financial literacy seminar, and then you walk out into a world where there are literally billions of dollars of advertisements bombarding you every second. How powerful do you think that training is going to be against all of these pressures that just inundate you as soon as you walk out that door?
Lasana: That’s exactly right. And so if the training is good training, what it does is it causes you now to attend less to those advertisements, right? And so, if the bias training is good training, it causes you to go out and have more experiences that will help attenuate the bias, because even though we live in biased societies, we don’t necessarily have to just consume that, right? We can create experiences for ourselves that contradict the learning that’s coming through society, right? So we allow ourselves to have close friendships with out-group members. We allow ourselves to reflect on the fact that we have different goals in particular situations, and sometimes the bias can get in the way of those goals. If those goals are important enough, we will focus on the goals, not the bias, right?
So, I think even though we’re saying the bias is in the air, essentially, we’re not saying that you have to breathe it in, right? And so, yes, some of it is still going to get through. It’s pervasive in society. But if you create meaningful experiences for yourself, you’re teaching yourself and your brain to respond differently. And that’s the point. And so, the most popular solution to bias is something in the literature called the contact hypothesis. And it’s popular because of the simplicity of the logic. And the contact hypothesis says, basically, if we can all just have some shared experiences, we’ll get along a lot better. So if I can meet you on a level playing field and we can have some meaningful experiences where we’re often dependent on each other and we’re cooperating and interacting, then the bias is going to leave.
Now, it’s a beautiful theoretical idea, but practically, it’s impossible to pull off, right? Because we live in stratified societies, you never really have interactions that are on a level playing field. But the core idea in the contact hypothesis is really succinct with this idea of giving ourselves new learning opportunities, because that’s what the contact is doing. So I think good training isn’t going to get the bias out of you, but good training is going to give you tools and strategies to combat it when it pops up to help you detect it and to help you learn how to improve the experiences you have so that eventually you can reduce it or get rid of it. And now you’re motivated to fight for the structural changes that are also going to change the associations, which are informing the bias.
Brooke: So, walk us through, what do some of these debiasing strategies look like? One example that you just gave around the contact hypothesis sounds like, if I can give it this term, social training. It’s just going out there and living and laying down the positive pattern that you want to continue having, moving forward. Is there also a brain training component to this? You mentioned raising awareness.
Lasana: Yeah, so I can talk you through a few examples from myself and collaborators in terms of how we’ve approached it. But these are all domain-specific, and I think that’s another important point here. There’s not going to be an out-of-the-box debiasing training that’s extremely effective that’s going to work for everybody. So in an educational context in the US, there’s an issue with bad behavior cases, essentially. So African-American and Latino/Latina Americans are punished more harshly within our educational system. They’re sent to the principal’s office more often. And that’s usually being done by the teacher in the classroom when they’ve noticed a student being disruptive.
Well, disruptive, to some extent, is subjective, right? It’s what you’re willing to tolerate in your classroom, and if you have a bias around African-Americans and Latinx people being more disruptive, then you’re more likely to interpret behavior as being disruptive from these people. And so, the bias is feeding back. You’re now seeing how it extends to discrimination. What they did in their training is they said, “Okay, let’s not even talk about race or bias. Let’s focus on why you want to be a teacher.” And for most people, they want to be a teacher to make those connections with students, right? Teachers really enjoy progressing students along.
Well, every student in your class is an opportunity to meet that goal. So if you’re sending some of them off to the principal, you’re going to be less likely to have that opportunity to form this meaningful interaction with the student where you can guide them through their academic journey. And that seemed to be more effective. In the case of parole officers, another collaborator did something similar where, again, they asked “Why do people become parole officers?”. Well, usually it’s because they want to help their communities. If we got the parole officers to focus on their communities rather than the race of the people coming through their door, then, again, they’re less likely to be biased. It’s kind of a distraction, right? You’re not giving the bias a chance to activate. You’re focusing on other things that are important.
We’ve done some work with big multinational household product companies, working with their marketeers. And again, we take the same approach. We say, “Well, what is important to marketers? It’s being creative.” Well, if you’re stereotyping, you’re inhibiting creativity because you’re doing what everybody else is doing. So let’s start thinking more outside of the box. Let’s rely less on stereotyping. Again, we get reduced levels. So, this alternative approach to bias training isn’t focusing on the bias at all, because that’s a tough nut to crack, right? That’s baked into your survival mechanisms. Well, what we’re doing instead is taking advantage of the fact that human beings and human brains are really flexible. And when I’m standing in a situation looking at something, I can see it multiple different ways. And so, if my goals are made salient, goals that are important to me and the purpose why I’m having this interaction, if they are made salient, then it’s possible that in some cases we could sidestep the bias, right? And it doesn’t have to come into play at all.
So that’s an approach that we’ve been taking recently. That’s more of an individual approach, but we think it might be more effective because you don’t have to get into all of the arguments about, “Do I experience bias? Is it conscious or unconscious? Is there anything I can do with it?” We don’t talk about bias at all. We talk about meeting your goals. And that seems to be effective.
Brooke: Really interesting, and very counterintuitive. I imagine a lot of people, if they expect to be walking into debias training, are caught flat footed by the conversation they end up having, because somehow bias never comes up.
Lasana: Exactly. And that gives them the ‘aha moment’ that we’re looking for, right, which is going to motivate engagement with the material. You’re absolutely right.
Brooke: Yeah. So, ultimately, it’s individuals that must decide and must act. I think you’ve made a really compelling case that individual behaviors are only part of it, that systemic changes need to be made. But ultimately, even systemic changes are the results of choices that individual people make. If organizations are going to make systemic changes, policy changes, it needs to be senior decision-makers within those organizations who push those forward and ultimately make those changes happen. So for a senior decision-maker who really wants change and who’s ready to act, what’s the most valuable first step that they can take, starting tomorrow morning?
Lasana: Think of this as culture change. So, a lot of people think of bias as a program that we do that’s supplemental to the rest of the things that we’re doing. So a workshop, a bias training session. To get real structural changes, you have to think of it as culture change and you have to reexamine everything that you’re doing within your organization, because at every decision point, there’s opportunity for discrimination and bias to seep in because, like you said, human beings are the ones in these decision points. Now, they’re not doing it from their racial group perspective, right? They’re doing it from their job description perspective, their job role or their social role. And what we’re arguing is that you can always leverage that. So as the leader, first of all, I have a lot of influence because people are going to follow what I’m doing if I’m the leader of the company, right, so I’m a central node in that social network. And so, if I change my own behavior, that’s going to have an impact on other people, as well. So a senior decision-maker can start with their own behavior.
Once you’ve done the debiasing within yourself using, perhaps, some of the techniques we’ve talked about, you now have to examine everything that you do, and you have to be willing to change everything that you do. So a lot of people do things in companies or organizations just because it’s what we’ve always done, right? And if what we’ve always done first originated when bias was much more rampant, then what you’ve always done probably has bias baked into it. And so, that kind of culture change is what’s necessary. And talking about structural change related to bias as culture change I think is more effective, because senior decision-makers are used to culture change, right? If there’s some new innovation in the marketplace, there has to be a culture change to capitalize on it. They’re used to doing that in these positions.
And that’s a framework I think people are more familiar with. If all you have to do is an add-on, then people are unsure of the effectiveness. They’re uncomfortable with the add-on, and it’s probably not going to be as effective because the rest of the organization is still going to have points where the bias is systemic. So, a senior decision-maker can start with themselves. We all can start with ourselves and try to broaden our own networks and get more experiences and regulate our biases and be more aware of them. But we can also, when we’re in these positions, examine every single aspect of how we do business, and consider whether there’s a more interesting way of doing it.
Brooke: Right, so picking up on some of the themes you were talking about earlier, becoming aware of your own biases and helping to bring them more to the surface and to identify them as what they are and deal with the misattribution challenges. And to put yourself in situations where you can have some positive experiences and lay down a healthier track, let’s say. That’s how you can start working on yourself as a leader. And in terms of systemic changes, thinking about it as culture change rather than just an add-on. I really like that. And just one last point, you mentioned that you really should be looking everywhere. I hearken back to a point that you made a few moments ago, that the data is the place to start. The data will tell you what your highest priorities are, where the problems are most substantial, that you should be tackling first.
Lasana: Exactly. And even in academia, we have this work to do as well, right? So just to give a concrete example. ere in the UK and probably in most other Western countries, there’s an awarding gap where minority students are getting lower grades than majority students. Students are meeting the same qualifications coming in, which means we’re not adding the same value to our students, based on their racial group membership. That flies in the face of our mission as educators, right? And so, that suggests culture change is necessary, but where do you start?
And so, the first thing we did when we started to do this within our own university is we gathered the data, both qualitative and quantitative. You look at things like admission numbers, you look at things like marks or grades, but you also talk to the students, right? We asked them what their experience was like. So data is really important, but all kinds of data, right? The easily available quantitative numbers you can pull off of a spreadsheet that’s stored in a hard drive somewhere on your company servers, but also learning something about the experiences of diverse employees, right? Ask them why they chose to work there? What would make them leave? Why would they stay? Get that kind of information from them, and that will often provide insights where the data is missing. So all data is really valuable.
And then once you’ve engaged in a process of change, you have to monitor it. And I think this is really where companies fall apart. So because bias training is a checkbox exercise, people put on bias training and they never evaluate its effectiveness. So “It’s enough that we’ve checked the box.” Any change you make, you have to evaluate it. So you have to see, is this something that’s working for me, because the change is going to be bespoke to your company or institution, right? Something that’s working over in another university isn’t going to work for us because we’re a big metropolitan university, and they may have a campus environment. And that difference alone is going to mean that we need different strategies. You have to be able to evaluate every change that you have, so the data is absolutely vital. And that’s just better business, anyway.
Brooke: Pivoting now from business leaders and, well, leaders of organizations, whether private sector, public sector, right, pivoting from there to people who are a little lower in the org chart, let’s say, what is it that people working on the front lines can do, again, starting tomorrow morning, to work on this issue?
Lasana: I think the influence piece is really important. I think we’re all embedded in different social networks. And in your organization, you’re within a network, even if you’re not in senior leadership. And there are going to be influential people within that, naturally. I think one strategy which has been reported by other researchers is simply to find those influential people and to focus your training on them, because if you can change their behavior, then people will follow what it is they’re doing.
So if, for instance, we live in this virtual world, we’re doing lots of recorded things for different meetings, if the influential people simply put on the closed captioning, right, so that now people who are less able to hear are able to follow along more better with this recording, now everybody’s going to be more likely to engage in that behavior. And so what we’ve done is we’ve instituted a behavior change without a big structural change. There was no edict from the top. But simply by having the influential people change their own behaviors, people will follow.
So I think that approach is really useful when we’re not talking about decision-makers who can make the big structural changes. The other thing that I think you can all do as individuals is continue to educate yourself on these issues, right? This is particularly a problem, I think, for us in the UK. In the US, they’ve done a better job recently, but we don’t learn about the historical context that explains why our society looks the way it does. All we have are the folk stories and the stereotypes and the tropes. Learning about why the world looks the way it does is really important because it gives you some perspective.
And for a lot of people, that claim is difficult. The argument here in the UK, for instance, is that, “Well, we’re proud of our country, and looking at ourselves makes us look bad.” Well, that’s the point. You need to recognize where you’ve failed, right? Where have there been shortcomings where great people have done horrible things because they’re human beings, right? And understanding the context in which we are living is going to drive us to change our behavior, as well. So I really think that understanding the past is particularly important because otherwise, we’re just relying on the learning that we have without a proper context for it.
Brooke: Yeah. This really pulls me in a direction that I hadn’t anticipated for our conversation today, but what are your thoughts on cancel culture and this idea that we need to be tearing down the monuments of people who have checkered pasts? My own response to that, and I’d really love to get into it with you on this, is if we just say, “This person was a slave owner. This person had these problematic issues in their past, and therefore we’re not going to learn about them,” we’re not solving the problem. We’re refusing to address it. We’re refusing to learn about it. What’s your perspective on the matter?
Lasana: Yeah, I think cancel culture as you’ve described it has conflated a number of different things. So, taking down the statues isn’t about erasure, in my opinion. It’s about the fact that if I’m a descendant of a slave and a slave owner is glorified in my society, what does that say about my value in the society? So it’s more about the impact it has on the people who are being discriminated against. That doesn’t mean that we pretend this person never existed, right? The person would be put, perhaps, in a museum where we can have more breadth of context to talk about all of the things that they did, not just the good stuff or the bad stuff, because human beings do both.
So, I disagree with the idea that taking down a statue is canceling culture in any form, absolutely not. In fact, it’s doing the opposite. Every time that statue comes down, there’s a conversation around, why do the people want to get rid of the statue? And if you’re willing to have an open conversation about that historical circumstance, we’re making progress. So I think cancel culture conflates those things, as it should, because I think the way cancel culture is used is as a weapon against this progressive push we’re having as we evolve as a species.
So we’re moving beyond this tribal living that has brought us this far in evolution but is beginning to, or has already, failed us. It’s resulted in inefficient systems; we’re unable to solve global challenges like COVID and climate change because of tribalism. So if we are to survive as a species and push past that, it doesn’t mean we forget about the past, but it means we have open and honest conversations about them that are inclusive of everybody that’s a part of our society. And that’s why cancel culture is being used as a weapon, because for lots of people, they love their countries, they love their societies, they’re proud of the great achievements that have come out of their countries and their societies.
And so, if you tell people, “Well, the progressives are trying to get rid of all of that stuff,” that’s a useful tool to fight against the progressives. But what progressive people are doing isn’t trying to get rid of that stuff. It’s trying to appreciate that some people are still being negatively affected, right? Racism still does exist. If it didn’t, the statues would be fine, right? But it still does exist. And so, lots of people don’t even believe that to begin with, that this is still a problem in society, which is why education is such a big piece. And any conversation around a statue is an opportunity for education, so I say take them all down. It’ll at least inspire conversation, right? And that’s what has happened, at least here in the UK. We’ve been able to have much more open conversations than we ever did because statues have been coming down, not because of anything else.
Brooke: I like the way that you’ve pivoted that, the focus is not on, should the statues stay up or should the statues stay down? It’s, “What is it that we can do to promote the most deep and rich conversation about this history so that we can learn about it?” That’s actually the thing we should be focusing on. Whether the statue goes up or comes down, it’s like, whatever gets us the most conversation about the history and gets us the most sensitized to this issue to help us get past it, that’s really the crux of the issue.
Lasana: Yeah, but it also has to come down because, again, considering the people who are still experiencing the effects of that historical moment, right?
Lasana: And so, think about it: we all live in very diverse societies. There are people who are British, Canadian or American who, 300 years ago, wouldn’t have been considered as such, but now they’re a crucial part of our society. We should maximize the potential of those individuals. If we’re constantly oppressing them with systemic racism and discrimination, and there are these very public reminders in the form of these statues, why would you do that to your own people, right? These aren’t other people. These are your own people.They’re part of your country. And I think, if anything, to me, COVID really made that clear, right? Once those borders are closed, you’re sort of stuck with the people you’re living with, whether their ancestral history has been in this country for a long or a short period is irrelevant. They’re part of your society. And so, you should be maximizing that potential. So, failure to maximize that potential is a failure of your society.
Brooke: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lasana: It’s an inefficiency that’s been built in, and we’re wasting human resources. And that’s the way I prefer to think of it. So to me, it’s not about justice or right. Those issues are important as well, but it’s about, as you were saying, if we are to move forward, we’re facing real challenges to our species. How do we move forward and overcome them? To me, it starts with maximizing our potential. And we’re woefully failing to do that in many Western societies, because of structural racism.
Brooke: I think that that is an excellent place to cap off this conversation. Lasana, thank you so much for this. It’s been great.
Lasana: Thanks for having me.
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