Here’s what you need to know about priming and implicit bias:
· Despite what you read in the paper, implicit bias can be both good or bad (and sometimes it’s neither).
· Priming is often a cause of implicit bias – and, paradoxically, can also be one of the best ways to change or overcome it.
· You’re likely unaware of your implicit bias and priming – and shouldn’t be.
To accept that all those things can be true at the same time doesn’t require that you suspend your disbelief as you would, say, watching a James Bond movie. What it does require is that you understand the relevant brain science.
Let’s start with implicit bias. I’ve written about it in this blog before (see “6 Ways To Break Your Implicit Bias Patterns”), but just to recap: Implicit bias is simply shortcuts our brains create to make sense of too much data. We are constantly confronted by more information than we can process – 275,000 times more than we can process, to be precise. Because the alternative is total paralysis, our brains compress information and create links between like information (or what we believe to be like information) so that we can make decisions quickly. In other words, rather than solely rely on the data in front of us, our brains depend on our experiences, history and perceptions to make decisions. Our brains rely on similar data, assuming that it’s as valid as the actual data.
In certain simple situations, this process is enormously helpful – even life-saving: Coiled, hissing snake = run! But, when managing a 21stcentury diverse workforce … not so much. In short, an adaptive strategy that can be good, can also be bad.
Here’s an example: A University of Warsaw study found that men perceived women who had feminine job titles (such as saleswoman) to be both significantly less warm and marginally less competent than women who had masculine job titles – and, therefore, they were less likely to hire those women. This is a classic case of implicit bias: Using similar data (job title) in place of actual data (job performance) and making decisions that we wouldn’t make consciously (hence, implicit) and aren’t ideal (qualified people get overlooked). But before we direct a disapproving scowl at the men in the study, keep this in mind: Extensive research has proven that weallhave implicit bias. It affects how we see age, gender, culture, race, height, and numerous other characteristics.
Which leads us, naturally, to priming. Primingis a broad term that describes the process of subconsciously training our memory. Let’s consider the job title example. Over time, we’ve all been exposed to a wide range of feminine job titles. It happens when we are reading an annual report (chairwoman), eating out (waitress), listening to the news (First Lady), or watching the Academy Awards (Best Actress). You get the idea. Over time, without our being aware, our brains bundle all these examples and train us to think that some jobs are defined more by gender than role and, therefore, accomplishment is secondary. It’s compounded by the fact that we are alsotraining our brains to create stereotypes about women that any woman will tell you are both inaccurate and maddening. In this example, priming has resulted in an implicit bias against women with feminine job titles.
This is not news: The groundbreaking work on priming, Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, was published in 1957. And yet the concept remains unknown to the vast majority of us. That’s unfortunate for at least two reasons. First, if we’re unaware of priming we’re unaware of how we continue to reinforce our implicit bias. Second, we can’t use priming to help us overcome that implicit bias. How does that work? By learning to consciously recognize subconscious priming and the implicit bias it creates, and then replacing one perception with a different one.
Here are some techniques for doing exactly that:
1. Recognize your own implicit bias. Odds are you don’t know what your own implicit biases are. (If you did, they would be explicit.) But you can’t change or overcome your own bias until you know what it is. There are many assessments available online; just Google “implicit bias test.”
2. Make an intentional plan. You develop implicit bias passively; you can’t overcome it that way. You’ll need to make a deliberate and repeated effort to re-wire your thinking. You’re more likely to succeed if you write down your intention (“I intend to draw on diverse perspectives and experiences in meetings”) and then sign it. Writing it down makes it concrete and helps you remember it; signing it reinforces your commitment. (You’ve been primed that way every time you sign a check or contract.) It’s also important to make it public, which leads us to the next technique.
3. Ask for help. If your intention is to draw on diverse perspectives in meetings, have someone you trust watch you in meetings and keep track of who you call on, how carefully you listen, how much time you spend listening to each person, and so on. Knowing someone is watching will help keep you focused on your goal. And if – for example – you learn that you spend more time listening to older people than you do to millennials, it may also help you identify an implicit bias you haven’t yet identified.
4. Make opportunities to cooperate with and compete against people who aren’t like you. We tend to interact with people who are like us, so our impressions of people outside our peer group are usually based on limited data. Spending time with others will expand that data set and, in the process, alter your perceptions.
5. Consciously investigate multiculturism. Seek out unfamiliar cuisine, listen to music from other cultures, go to an exhibit of art from a culture you know little about, read a novel translated from another language and set somewhere you’ve never been. Seek training on other cultures, and on the nature of culture. All these activities – and others – will help your brain make new associations.
6. Consciously prime your own emotions and behaviors. If you’re honest, you know your own limitations. Suppose, for example, you are uncomfortable with public speaking. You can boost your confidence if, during a speech, you can see a photograph of an effective public speaker, such as Nelson Mandela or Angela Merkel. Here’s a surprising priming tip to boost your creativity: Researchers have found that just looking at the Apple logo helped people come up with more ideas. And if you want to treat people more kindly, spend some time online shopping for products that are good for the environment – it helps prime you to be more altruistic. The point here is to create conscious connections with the behavior you want to prime in yourself.
7. Engage in complex tasks. A 2010 study by a trio of researchers found that people primed by a simple task (to self-identify eye color given just a few broad choices) subsequently relied on short cuts and fewer criteria when making decisions; their brains were primed to think in broad, simple terms. People asked to choose from a much longer list (nine colors) had to think about it more carefully. They subsequently considered more information when making decisions; their brains were primed to “think harder.”
Whichever of these techniques you choose, and however many, be patient. You won’t get instant results, because it took years of subconscious priming to shape how you see things now. It will take diligence, repetition and reflection. But if placing an image of an eye next to a bicycle rack reduces theft and if people eat more (and believe they ate less) when told a portion is small (both of which are experimentally proven), imagine the ways in which you can transform yourself to be primed for greater success in multicultural work environments.