Overcoming Unconscious Bias: What Works and What Doesn’t

Posted in GUMC Stories

January 13, 2017 – Even though everyone has biases, they can be overcome with time, effort and motivation, said H. Anna Han, PhD, senior behavioral scientist and senior policy advisor at NIH Scientific Workforce Diversity, at an event organized by Georgetown University School of Medicine Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

“The question is not about whether you have biases, it’s a question of what is your bias,” Han said at “Great Minds Think Differently: The Science of Diversity and the Impact of Unconscious Bias” on January 12 in Proctor Harvey Amphitheater. “We’re all biased, we’re all flawed, we’re not perfect and we’re going to work to overcome that.”

The Value of Diversity

Diversity benefits organizations in different ways, Han said. For example, companies with more diversity in the upper levels of management are worth more than companies with less diversity. Also, research papers written by diverse groups receive more citations and are published in higher impact journals than comparable papers written by less diverse groups.

Diversity works by increasing social friction in groups, making group members more thoughtful and less likely to simply accept the status quo, Han said. “Diverse groups have more vigorous discussions, preventing everyone from just going along to get along.” However, unconscious bias can prevent organizations from capitalizing on the benefits of diversity, including increased creativity and innovation.

As a social scientist, Han has studied the strategies for overcoming unconscious bias that are most – and least – effective. Some techniques work better than others but what’s most important for an individual to overcome their unconscious bias is being aware of their biases and having the desire to change, she said.

“Initially it’s going to take some effort so you have to be motivated,” Han said. “It takes some effort but the strategies are pretty much universal.”

Differences Should Be Acknowledged, Not Ignored

People frequently attempt to overcome unconscious bias by suppressing their urges to acknowledge differences, a tactic that doesn’t work, according to Han.

“If you just tell yourself, do not to think about someone’s race or gender, it just makes it worse,” Han said. “You’re more likely to think about it.” Instead, those who are striving to overcome unconscious bias should acknowledge differences when facing individuals from diverse backgrounds.

“The whole colorblind movement doesn’t work. You’re supposed to recognize people for who they are,” Han said. “Acknowledge someone’s gender or color if you need to but don’t try to suppress it”

Visualizing Diversity

When interviewing job applicants for a position, hiring managers sometimes prepare by picturing their ideal candidate for the role, a strategy that can be problematic for a hiring manager striving to increase diversity in their workplace, Han said. Such an exercise makes the hiring manager more likely to dismiss job applicants who do not fit the hiring manager’s mental image of their ideal candidate but who would do well in the position.

Instead, hiring managers should take a few moments to picture a wide range of individuals who could perform well in the position. “I’m not telling you to lower your expectations but broaden them,” Han said. Another way that people can use visualization techniques to help overcome unconscious bias is by making an effort to look at pictures of individuals who counter stereotypes, like women and minorities working in STEM fields.

Focus on the Individual and Working Together

Ultimately, one of the best ways to overcome unconscious bias is to learn more about people as individuals. “This may be easier said than done but get to know the person so if you see someone who is different from you and obtain specific information about that person, you’re less likely to rely on group categories when you know about the person,” Han said. “You’re less likely to see that person as that race or that gender or a representative of that group if you get to know them.”  

Creating opportunities for positive interactions also helps individuals overcome unconscious bias. “When your environment is more cooperative versus competitive, it reduces stereotype use and bias use,” Han said. “So one way to do that is to really emphasize common goals or common identity.”

Kat Zambon
GUMC Communications