Understanding, identifying, and addressing the biases in my life.
I’ll begin with a confession. If you have red hair you may not like this: I used to think that red-headed people were flaky, strange, other, hard to like. I was wary of them. Sorry, it’s not personal. Confessions don’t always win us friends. I didn’t know why. In reality, my preconceived unconscious biases were hard at work.
I was entering the second half of my life when it hit me like a flying brick – my father has red hair!
My brain, like yours, continuously processes an incredibly huge amount of data, so I grab shortcuts to figure what it all means. Like you, I have a database of ready-made interpretations and conclusions in my unconscious psyche. “Oh yes, I’ve seen this before;” says my brain, “I know all about this.”
I found an excellent place to check out potential unconscious biases that I might possess: Harvard University’s Project Implicit where I took the Implicit Association Test (IAT). I wasn’t so fair-minded if these unconscious biases were at work in me. The One Minute Manager says, “feedback is the breakfast of champions.”[i] After some denial and ignoring, I decided to try the controlled association method.
I relaxed. In the middle of a clean sheet of paper, I wrote a word or a very short phrase whose associations I wished to discover— such as red hair. I drew a circle around my words. I said those words aloud. Then, without hesitation or censoring said the first word, or very short phrase that came to mind, I wrote what I heard myself say. Then I drew a line from my stimulus word to my response word.
I repeated this many, many times until I could go no further. My page looked like a flower with my associations to the central stimulus word like petals. Here’s a typical example:
The end-product is called a complex, and a thorough analysis of the words and themes I associated with my initial subject revealed a lot about what unconscious biases might be present. I went through them slowly, one by one, until I found ones that made me excited, uncomfortable, confused, elated, euphoric, or angry. As Jung wrote, “affect is invariably a sign that a complex has been activated.”[ii]
These contained the germs of a truth about myself that I’d rather not face. Did they colour my judgment, positively, negatively? Do they make me pre-judge? Do they provide handy, ready-made answers and solutions? Might they influence my objectivity?
Later, I tried it with other words I might be biased about; words related to gender, nationality, religion, race, sexual orientation, age. The list could be endless, but these seemed to be good starting points. These activities help bring to consciousness attitudes, feelings, opinions I hardly knew I had. Now my task was to think carefully about whether unconscious biases could influence my decisions and actions. That’s the hardest part.
The opus consists of three parts: insight, endurance, and action. Psychology is needed only in the first part, but in the second and third parts moral strength plays the predominant role.Carl Jung [iii]
Maybe bias can never be completely eliminated. However, creating awareness about them, understanding their negative potential, and working to correct them are key to ensuring they don’t begin to colour our decisions in leadership, advising, mentoring, or collaborative roles.
[i] Blanchard K and Johnson S (1982) The One Minute Manager, William Morrow and Co., New York.
[ii] Jung, C G, The Shadow, Aion, CW 9ii, par. 15.
[iii] Gerhardt Adler and Aniela Jaffé (eds.), C G Jung Letters, Volume 1, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.‹ Previous PostNext Post ›