The Bias of the Unbiased

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A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of fulfilling my civic duty as a potential juror. This was the fourth time I had received a summons to report for jury duty, although the first three times I was excused before I ever made it to jury selection. But not this time. This time I ended up spending two days at the courthouse and, as many of you who have been there know, it involved a lot of waiting, which gave me the chance to meet some very interesting people from all different walks of life. I had the opportunity to get in the jury box and answer questions from three sets of lawyers representing the plaintiffs and two defendants in a civil case. I also got a chance to watch 47 other potential jurors go through the same process.

The people-watching was priceless. It was clear that this wasn’t the judge’s first rodeo. He was quite witty and anticipated and addressed just about all of our questions and concerns in a humorous, yet matter-of-fact way. He seemed to enjoy hearing his talks and quips just as much as the rest of us. The lawyers—six in all—each had their own quirks. One was very slow in going through her notes between questions. Another one never really spoke up and only loudly whispered to the slower one. Then there was the one who took notes profusely and yet somehow got the facts wrong every single time he referred to someone’s previous answers.

It became pretty clear, really fast, who was determined to get out of jury duty. One stood out to all of us as he raised his hand every single time we were asked to self-identify if we had a particular bias or felt that we could not be objective. Interestingly enough, it worked for him. He was the first to be let go. The rest of us, for the most part, were trying to answer the questions to the best of our ability. 

The fact that our determined friend was let off the hook on account of his biases speaks to what is perhaps the most notable effect that our biases have on us: they let us off the hook. This is because biases fall under the category of what we might call mental shortcuts. They give us quick and easy solutions the way that most shortcuts get us to our destination quickly, i.e. by cutting corners. Biases are ingrained, default, automatic ways of thinking or behaving in response to certain situations that have been shown by experience to be “good enough,” that is, good enough for survival. They give our brains permission to be lazy, so that all that critical thinking doesn’t slow down our responses when they are really necessary. For instance, you can imagine that it would have been better for our ancestors to run first and think later when they heard a rustle in the bushes, because surviving was more important than knowing what they were running from. The issue is, of course, most of us don’t live in a survival-based world anymore, and the same mental shortcuts that kept us alive in the past are precisely what hold us back today.

As I sat in the courtroom and watched the lawyers on both sides ask potential jurors if they could be unbiased in deciding the case, I thought to myself that that was the most absurd question they could possibly ask. Unless this was some kind of psychological test to see how people would react to an impossible question, I didn’t see how asking someone such a thing would ever yield a useful answer.  This may be because my basic assumption is that we are all biased in some form or fashion. I believe one of the main differentiators between many of us is whether we recognize our biases and acknowledge their pervasive effect on our judgments, evaluations, and decisions, or fail to do so and remain subject to them. Therefore, to me, asking this question would be like asking someone if they were a liar. Whether they were or not, the answer would always be, “No!”

A person who is biased against a certain group of people doesn’t particularly consider their bias a bias. Perhaps it is what they were raised to believe, or perhaps society is such that their bias is considered culturally acceptable by the people they associate with. Whatever the case, often they simply consider it a fact and therefore they do not see themselves as biased. And therein lies the problem with bias: it is usually so insidious and subtle that those who are most affected by it are also those who are least aware of that fact.

So, needless to say, aside from the guy who was determined to get out of jury duty by possibly faking all kinds of biases, and a few others with legitimate misgivings about the case, the rest of us were pretty much all going to say we could be objective, whether that was the case or not.

When it came to be my turn to be interrogated, I was really hoping they would just stick to the easy questions. Have you ever been convicted of a felony? Have you ever been party to a lawsuit? But no such luck. The slower lawyer with the loud whisperer in her ear popped the question. “Mr. Ghannad, can you be unbiased in deciding this case?” she asked. I knew what I was going to say but paused for a moment to make sure it would come out the right way. “I have to admit I do have biases but I believe I can to set them aside and be objective,” I said politely. My answer was apparently not satisfactory, so she asked me again, using slightly different words, just in case I had a comprehension problem. “I believe I can be objective,” I answered. Some loud whispering ensued and she came back with, “You keep saying you believe. So can you or can you not be unbiased?” By this time, I was ready to have a discussion on unconscious bias but I considered that it was probably not the right time nor venue for that so I calmly replied, “Ma’am, with all due respect, all I can tell you is what I believe. I am aware that I have biases and that they may interfere with my judgment. I am willing to do the best I can to set them aside and I believe I can do that but I cannot be sure. All I can tell you in that in my biased opinion, I can be unbiased! I’m not sure what else you want to me to tell you.”

I wasn’t trying to grandstand or be obstructionist, although I’m sure many assumed that this was the case. Rather, I was just being as truthful as I could, given the question I had been asked. However, I believe both sides somehow found me to be too unpredictable and ultimately I was not picked to serve on the jury. The interesting thing is that several others who were questioned after me ended up paraphrasing or repeating the points I had made about my ability to deliver an unbiased decision. It was as if they had been waiting for someone to make it okay to own up to their biases and admit that they might get in the way.

For better or worse, this is a common phenomenon that we all experience, in fact it is so common that there is a term for it: “social proof.” This means that, to a greater or lesser extent, we all look to others for permission or confirmation that what we are doing is right. How many of us say that we want change, but then wait for someone else to initiate it? How many of us wait to speak up about some perceived injustice until we know that we are in the majority? Like many biases and mental shortcuts, the social proof also serves to maintain the status quo by disincentivizing anyone who dares to question it. The pervasiveness of this effect speaks to the unique position and importance of Transformative Leaders. Whereas others look to society to tell them what is acceptable, Transformative Leaders have the courage to look deep within themselves to determine what is right, and they take it upon themselves to put that insight into action regardless of whether society agrees with them or not. By doing that, Transformative Leaders give others the permission they were waiting for to do what they know is right, thereby transforming the social proof from a force for inaction into a force for change. Could it be any other way? If Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi had decided to wait until their beliefs were socially acceptable before acting on them, it is likely that we would all still be waiting for the same thing today. As Dr. King put it, “There comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.

There comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.
— Martin Luther King Jr.

If I were ever on trial where 12 people were going to decide my fate, I would want them to be unbiased. Wouldn’t you? In reality, the great majority of us will never be on trial, but we are subject to other people’s judgments and evaluations every day. The key question we all ought to ask ourselves is whether we can truly be as unbiased in our life as we want others to be toward us.

If we accept the notion that biases are automatically developed based on our experiences, then we all have them and the best chance we have of not letting them cloud our judgment is to acknowledge their presence and deal with them, rather than try to pretend they don’t exist.

Of course, it is always great to have people around you who are willing to call you on your prejudiced views. My kids have done that for me many times and I am a better person for it.  Unfortunately, those of us with unconscious bias against certain groups of people often make sure we are surrounded by people who think like us, or at least people who are not inclined to rock the boat.

If you are interested to know where you stand on this, I challenge you to do this simple exercise:

  1. Identify the different groups of people that you associate with or have an opinion about. It could be your employees, your bosses, black people, white people, democrats, republicans, foreigners, teenagers, older people, etc.
     
  2. Pick 1-2 groups that you consider to be different than you, especially those who might get under your skin a little. 
     
  3. Write down, for each group, the first five thoughts that come to mind about what those people are like.
     
  4. Examine these thoughts and try and see the ways in which buying into this bias lets you off the hook, or the ways in which it benefits you in some way. Do your assumptions give you license to blame others instead of taking responsibility? Do they make your decision making process simpler?
     
  5. Look at the ways in which this bias may not be fully truthful. Is it logical? Is there any evidence to the contrary? Does thinking this way actually lead to comprehensive and satisfying solutions, or does it keep you trapped in a vicious cycle?
     
  6.  Ask a member of each group who is willing to be straight with you to go over your list and share their perspective. If you don’t know any members of that group, it is time you meet some of them. If that step is too huge, at least identify someone who doesn’t have the same negative opinions that you have and ask them to complete this step with you.
     
  7. With this perspective in hand, think of ways in which you can speak or act against your biases when they come up.

I am reminded of my favorite movie, Remember the Titans, in which two team members, one black and one white, were able to bring a whole team and their families together in the midst of racial unrest in their community. If they had not been forced to own up to, examine, and finally give up their biases, they would have remained stuck in the same cycle of automatic behaviors and thoughts that created the negative environment they found themselves in to begin with. It is only when we acknowledge our biases that we can ever begin to loosen their hold on us.


THE BOTTOM LINE:

We would all be better off if we recognized that there is nothing wrong with having biases, as long as we acknowledge their existence and do our best not to act on them. It is when we deny that we have biases that we relinquish control of our thoughts and allow society to think for us.  

Biases are comforting because they provide easy answers where none may be readily available in reality. More often than not, however, those answers or solutions give us an excuse to be lazy or give up on solving the real problem. We all want change, but unfortunately we also tend to want someone else to go first. Transformative Leaders do not have this luxury, nor should they. They do not look to others for permission to speak the truth or do the right thing. Rather, they are authentic about what they know and don't know, and own up to their faults and biases, so that all those who look up to them realize that they have permission to do the same. It is only through this acknowledgment and sharing that we are able to help each other put down the baggage we have been carrying in the form of our biases or at least make peace with our imperfections, knowing that we can mitigate the risk of them impairing our judgment, so long as they are not hidden from our view.


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Have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary! As always, I would love to hear about your victories and/or challenges. Please leave your comments below or send me an email at amir@theghannadgroup.com.

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