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Everyday Bias

Everyday Bias
Identifying and Navigating Unconscious
Judgments in Our Daily Lives
Updated Edition
Howard J. Ross

ROWMAN & LITTLEFIELD
Lanham • Boulder • New York • London

Published by Rowman & Littlefield
An imprint of The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc.
4501 Forbes Boulevard, Suite 200, Lanham, Maryland 20706
www.rowman.com
6 Tinworth Street, London SE11 5AL
Copyright © 2020 by The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any
electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems,
without written permission from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote
passages in a review.
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Information Available
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Ross, Howard J.
Everyday Bias : Identifying and navigating unconscious judgments in our daily lives / by Howard J.
Ross.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-1-4422-5865-5 (cloth : alk. paper) -- ISBN 978-1-5381-2530-4 (electronic)
1. Prejudices. I. Title.
BF575.P9R67 2014
303.3'85--dc23
2014011226
TM

The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of American
National Standard for Information Sciences Permanence of Paper for Printed Library
Materials, ANSI/NISO Z39.48-1992.

Contents

Acknowledgments

vii

Introduction: Blinded by the Light of Our Bias

xi

1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8

If You Are Human, You Are Biased
Thinking about Thinking
The Many Faces of Bias
Life, Death, Arrests, and Unconscious Bias
Who Has the Power?
Like Water for the Fish: #MeToo and Networks of Bias in
Everyday Life
Shifting to Neutral: How We Can Learn to Disengage from Bias
Incubators of Consciousness: Creating More Conscious
Organizations

1
17
41
61
71
85
103
125

Conclusion: A Brave New World, A Grand New Journey

143

Appendix

149

Notes

165

Bibliography

173

Index

181

About the Author

191

v

Acknowledgments

A lot has happened i; n the world since the first printing of this book in 2014. I
have had the opportunity to travel all over the world, meeting people in all
walks of life and developing a deep appreciation of how bias impacts the
lives of people in Tokyo, Japan; Stockholm, Sweden; Basel, Switzerland;
Paris, France; Copenhagen, Denmark; New Delhi, India; London, England;
Havana, Cuba; Bahia, Brazil; and San Juan, Puerto Rico, among countless
other cities and countries. I have been present to the courage of people who
made themselves vulnerable and shared their stories in dozens of states, and
delivered workshops, seminars, and webinars to hundreds of thousands of
people. Their humanity is a constant inspiration.
Of course, a lot has also happened in the world around us. Michael Brown
was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri, one month after the book was
originally released. His death was followed by dozens of other incidents of
bias leading to horrific or fatal results. We have also seen the legalization of
same gender marriage, both here in the United States and in other countries
around the world; the Black Lives Matter Movement; the 2016 Presidential
election; the #MeToo movement; Colin Kaepernick’s protest against police
violence; the escalation of white supremacists, marching in Charlottesville,
and the President’s reference to them as “very fine people”; Four congresswomen of color being told to “go back where you came from!”
We can’t comfort ourselves with the notion that there is any less work to
do in our efforts to create a more equitable world.
I have never labored in the illusion that we would be able to be successful
in our own lifetimes. In fact, this work is like exercise . . . it is probably
something we will always have to do consciously, because people will always find a way to divide ourselves.

vii

viii

Acknowledgments

When I began my professional career, I never set out to develop any
expertise in the specific topics discussed in this book. My interest in social
justice and my experience in social action almost inadvertently drew me to
becoming a consultant. My fascination with the topic of the unconscious
mind evolved over a number of years as I became more and more curious
about why it was that I would continually interact with seemingly good
people who would, nonetheless, demonstrate irrational behavior that created
disparities in the way they treated people and ran organizations. Convincing
people to develop an intention to be more equitable was challenging, but in
the bigger picture never seemed all that difficult. What I found perplexing
was why their behavior didn’t change over a sustainable period.
In a way, my life has forced me to grow and evolve. The pain that my
family suffered at the hands of Nazi aggression combined with growing up in
a barely desegregated Washington, D.C., community contributed to creating
a core sense of purpose to address injustice in society. The coincidence of
being born when I was and growing up during a time of tremendous social
upheaval placed me at the heart of the social change movement. My clumsiness in my early leadership roles forced me to study leadership. Early in my
career my ignorance about how to grow a school that I was running led me to
learn about organizational and cultural change. My own transition through
personal struggles, particularly divorce, led me to learn more about myself
and how people experience their world. The exploration of my spiritual life
led me to explore the meaning of life. And my observations of my own biases
completely confounded me, because I knew that I didn’t want to be biased—
yet I was, and am!
For my passion for equity and inclusion I am grateful to so many people
whom I have learned from and worked with. My experience in diversity and
inclusion has been influenced by hundreds of diversity professionals over the
years, far too many to name here, and also by the students and staff of
Operation Understanding DC, my students at Bennett College for Women,
colleagues at the Human Rights Campaign, Leadership Greater Washington,
the National Council for Community and Justice, and dozens of other social
change organizations that I have had the privilege of working with over the
years.
I want to send a special shout out to my sister/mentor/teacher/colleague
Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole, whose friendship and wisdom has supported me
in so many ways.
What I have learned about the brain and the mind has been influenced by
so many great minds over time that it is hard to count them all. Some of those
whose work has most enlightened me include: Robert F. Allen, Nalini Ambady, Dan Ariely, Ian Ayres, Mahzarin Banaji, Lera Boroditsky, Christopher
Chabris, Amy Cuddy, Antonio Damasio, Edward De Bono, Joe Dispenza,
Michael Gazzaniga, Anthony Greenwald, Jonathan Haidt, John Jost, Carl

Acknowledgments

ix

Jung, Daniel Kahneman, Ray Kurzweil, Matthew Lieberman, Jonah Lehrer,
Konrad Lorenz, Beau Lotto, Arnold Meyersburg, Leonard Mlodinow, Walter
Mischel, Michael Norton, Brian Nosek, Scott E. Page, Daniel Pink, Stephen
Pinker, V. S. Ramachandran, David Rock, Daniel Simon, Sam Sommers,
Claude Steele, Hal Stone, Sidra Stone, Amos Tversky, Shankar Vedantam,
Kipling Williams, Tim Wilson, and Philip Zimbardo.
My personal and spiritual growth led me to a fascination with the perennial streams of learning, and I owe an enormous debt to the wisdom of the
Bhagavad Gita, the ancient Sufis, particularly the poets Rumi and Hafiz, and
the teachings of the Buddha, who somehow seemed to identify patterns of the
mind 2,500 years ago that science is just now coming to understand. I’ve also
had the opportunity to study with a wide range of teachers, including Gerald
Jampolsky, Fernando Flores, Buckminster Fuller, Neem Karoli Baba, Werner Erhardt, Howard Thurman, Nancy Neall, Osho, Eckhardt Tolle, Ken
Wilber, and Thich Nhat Hahn. And a special thanks goes to my dear colleagues, friends, and soul mates Michael Schiesser and Neelama Eyres.
All of that provided the ingredients, but turning it into a book is another
story. I want to especially thank my editor Mary Stanik who not only worked
on basic editing, but also strategized the format with me and managed to
capture my “voice” in a way that gave me great confidence and trust, both
with this book and with my first. Thanks also to Dan Egol, who did an
exceptional job of reading and offered tremendously helpful suggestions as
well as research support; Howie Schaffer and Laura Malinowski, who also
served as valuable readers and gave helpful feedback; and Jake Ross, who
contributed research support. Also thanks to Jon Sisk and the rest of the folks
at Rowman & Littlefield who are a pleasure to work with.
I am very grateful to the people of Cook Ross Inc., the company I cofounded in 1989 and sold in the summer of 2018, who are deeply committed
to transforming the world one organization at a time, especially my business
partner and now successor as CEO, Michael Leslie Amilcar.
Anther special acknowledgment to my dear friend and brother James
Robby Gregg, Jr. who left this mortal plane in December 2018. Robby was
one of the greatest allies I ever had in terms of getting my work out into the
world. There is no doubt in my mind that my career would have been much
smaller and much more limited without his constant support, friendship, and
dedication. Robby, you believed in me before it all happened. There will
never be another like you. I love you more.
My deepest gratitude goes to my family. My parents, Jack and Irene Ross,
raised all of us to be thinkers and learners and to make a contribution to the
world around us. I miss them. My stepfather, Bob Rosen, who loved me for
more than twenty years. I am deeply grateful that he came into our lives. My
sisters, Sharryn and Robbie, have always inspired my passion for social
justice through their own good works. And special thanks to my sons, Matt,

x

Acknowledgments

Jason, Gabe, and Jake, who are smart, loving and, simply, awesome, and to
their wives, Monita, Kate, and Shauna, who contribute to my life in so many
ways.
To my grandchildren, Hannah, Mayah, Sloane, Penelope, Davis, and Audrey, thank you for showering your Aaja with love.
And to my wife, business and life partner Leslie Traub. No words can
possibly express how much my life has expanded because you are in it. You
are at the core of everything. I love you.
Finally, to the Great Beloved, in all of the names. Thank you for my life
and the chance to share it in a meaningful way.

Introduction
Blinded by the Light of Our Bias

We allow our ignorance to prevail upon us and make us think we can survive
alone, alone in patches, alone in groups, alone in races, even alone in genders.
―Maya Angelou
Ninety-nine percent of who you are is invisible and untouchable.
—R. Buckminster Fuller

Did you know people in supermarkets buy more French wine when French
music is playing in the background, and more German wine when the music
is German? That white National Basketball Association (NBA) referees have
been found to call more fouls on black players, and black referees call more
fouls on white players? Or, that scientists have been found to rate potential
lab technicians lower, and plan to pay them less, if the potential technicians
are women? And that doctors treat patients differently when the patients are
overweight, and that patients treat doctors differently when the doctors are
overweight?
Most importantly, did you know that all of these behaviors, and many
more, happen without people realizing they are happening, and that these
behaviors are demonstrations of biases? Biases people don’t know they possess. Biases that occur without people knowing why they occur.
Over the past twenty years or so, psychologists, cognitive psychiatrists,
neuroscientists, and social scientists have observed countless incidents and
engaged in literally hundreds of tests that undeniably point to a human dynamic that ranges from the curious to the tragic.
Human beings are consistently, routinely, and profoundly biased.
xi

xii

Introduction

We not only are profoundly biased but we also almost never know we are
being biased. The fact that we don’t know it results in behaviors that not only
include the ones described previously, but, as we’ll discuss later, have even
contributed to the deaths of innocent people.
During the course of the past five decades, people throughout the world
have taken up the mantle of human equality in ways that have no historical
precedent. In the United States, we have seen the civil rights movement, the
women’s movement, and the expansion of acceptance of and equal rights for
lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBTQ) people. The public discourse has changed so dramatically during these past fifty years that in a
great many social and professional circles, it had seemed that it was completely unacceptable to voice openly bigoted statements. In South Africa,
apartheid (the horrific system designed to subjugate black South Africans to
permit the white minority to maintain power) has been gone for more than
twenty years. In Europe, countries have moved toward elevating gender equity to formal public policy status. Many of the governments of these nations
are studying the many facets of multiculturalism as waves of immigrants
radically change the demographics of historically homogeneous countries.
We have established laws that limit people’s biased behavior and hold
them accountable for discriminatory behavior. We have hired chief diversity
officers who have instituted diversity and inclusion guidelines and training
programs for millions of people in schools, major corporations, small businesses, governmental agencies, not-for-profit institutions and the military to
teach us to be more “tolerant” of each other. We have established special
holidays to recognize and honor the contributions made by previously unheralded individuals and movements. Large-scale summits and conferences
meant to address equity issues take place around the world on an almost daily
basis. We have written thousands of books (including mine), made numerous
movies, developed social movements, organized protest marches, and produced countless Oprah shows, all in an attempt to try to understand the
problem and then try to fix it. There is no question that, at least on a conscious level, the standard we set for our behavior has changed.
And yet, as we have seen in the last few years, these changes are quite
fragile. In the last few years we have seen a rise again in the visibility of
white supremacist movements, spurred on by a President who has referred to
them as “very nice people.” We have heard that same president tell four
women of color, all members of congress, to “go home to where they came
from,” even as three of them were born in this country and the fourth a
naturalized citizen. We have seen brown skinned immigrants attacked and
their families separated as they wait in cages for their right to asylum.
Not all of these are examples of unconscious bias, but the fact that people
support them, despite the fact that they see themselves and the country as fair
and equitable, is an example of the way our minds can play tricks with us.

Introduction

xiii

There is good reason for moving towards more inclusive behavioral standards. More than ever, people realize that creating an inclusive, culturally
competent society just makes good sense. Businesses recognize the impact of
getting the best workers from an increasingly diverse workforce, creating the
most engaged workplace environments which allow people to perform at the
highest level while serving an increasingly diverse and global customer base.
Health-care providers recognize that removing bias and understanding the
cultural patterns of patients not only creates greater equity, but also creates
greater patient health outcomes. Educational institutions know that a diverse
student body creates a better scholastic experience for their learners and that
the quality of teaching improves when teachers demonstrate more inclusivity
and less bias.
And yet, despite all of these efforts and all of these good intentions, there
are countless examples of how our biases still dominate our everyday thinking. How is it that with all of this effort, patterns of disparity continue in
virtually every area of life? Medical and dental disparity gaps between whites
and people of color in the United States, especially for African American,
Latino, and Native American patients, have not changed significantly over
the past five decades. Incarceration rates are still dramatically higher among
African Americans than among the white population, and they are significantly higher in European countries among immigrant populations of color
than among the native born. The salaries of women, compared to those for
men in the same jobs, are changing in such a glacially slow fashion that at the
current rate, we will not achieve gender equity in the salary sphere in North
America and elsewhere in the world until we are well into the next century.
Suicide rates for gay teenagers remain four times higher than those for
heterosexual youth.
I could go on, because the data are overwhelming, but the question we
need to ask is clearly staring us in the face. How can we have good intentions, engage in so many of the right kinds of behaviors, and still not get it
right? In fact, many of the results of research that has been done on bias show
that biased behavior is shockingly normal. Let’s look at a few research examples that show how this behavioral tendency that exists in all of our minds
shows up all around us.
Adrian North, David Hargreaves, and Jennifer McKendrick, members of the
music research group in the psychology department at the University of
Leicester in the United Kingdom, decided to find out whether the sound of
music could influence people’s choices when shopping. 1 They stocked the
shelf of a normal supermarket with eight different bottles of wine. Four of the
bottles were French and four were German. The wines were alternately displayed in different positions on the shelf, to ensure that the shelf placement
would not affect the experiment. They were matched for cost and sweetness.

xiv

Introduction

Flags of their countries of origin were positioned near the bottles. On alternate days, French accordion music or German Bierkeller music was played
as background in the store.
The results of this experiment were startling. When the French accordion
music was playing, 76.9 percent of the French wine was purchased. When
the German Bierkeller music was in the background, 73.3 percent of the
German wine was purchased! Interestingly enough, when the forty-four
shoppers involved in the experiment were questioned after their purchases,
only 14 percent of them acknowledged that they noticed the music. Only one
said it made any impact upon their purchases. 2 In similar studies, researchers
have found that classical music playing in the background, as opposed to Top
40 popular music, can encourage people to buy more expensive wine and
spend more money in restaurants. 3
How fair are NBA referees? Justin Wolfers, an assistant professor of business and public policy at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and Joseph Price, a Cornell graduate student in economics, decided to
find out. They studied more than six hundred thousand observations of foul
calls in games over a twelve-year period between 1991 and 2003. They
worked hard to sort out a large number of non-race-related factors in the way
fouls were called by referees. What did they find?
As it was, white referees called fouls at a greater rate against black
players than against white players. They also found a corresponding bias in
which black referees called more fouls against white players than black
players, although the bias was not as strongly represented statistically as was
the case with white referees and black players. The researchers claimed that
the different rates at which fouls are called is large enough that the probability of a team winning is noticeably affected by the racial composition of the
refereeing crew assigned to the game. Wolfers and Price also studied data
from box scores. They took into account a wide variety of factors including
players’ positions, individual statistics, playing time, and All-Star status.
They reviewed how much time each group spent on the court, and also
considered differentials relating to home and away games.
In addition, the researchers reported a statistically significant correlation
with performance relative to points, rebounds, assists, and turnovers when
players were performing in games where the officials were primarily of the
opposite race. “Player-performance appears to deteriorate at every margin
when games are officiated by a larger fraction of opposite-race referees,”
Wolfers and Price noted. “Basically, it suggests that if you spray-painted one
of your starters white, you’d win a few more games,” Wolfers said.
David Berri, a sports economist, professor of economics at Southern Utah
University, and a past president of the North American Association of Sports
Economists, was asked to review the study. “It’s not about basketball,” Berri

Introduction

xv

said. “It’s about what happens in the world. This is just the nature of decision
making, and what happens when you have an evaluation team that’s so
different from those being evaluated. Given that your league is mostly
African American, maybe you should have more African American referees—for the same reason that you don’t want mostly white police forces in
primarily black neighborhoods.” 4
Jo Handelsman is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at Yale University, and the associate
director for science at the White House Office of Science and Technology
Policy. Curious about some of the dynamics that might account for the fact
that a disparity has existed for generations between the performance of men
and women in the sciences, Handelsman and several colleagues designed a
relatively simple experiment to find out if gender plays a role in the scientific
staff hiring process. In a relatively straightforward attempt to explore the
question, Handelsman reached out to science professors at three private and
three public universities and asked them to evaluate a recent graduate attempting to secure a position as a laboratory manager. All of the professors
were sent the same one-page candidate summary. The applicant was intentionally described as promising but not extraordinary. However, some of the
applicants were named John, and some were named Jennifer. All other aspects of the applications were identical.
A total of 127 professors responded to the request. The results were both
fascinating and troubling. When asked to evaluate the applicants on a scale of
1 to 7, with 7 being the highest score possible, candidates named John received an average score of 4 for perceived overall competence. “Jennifer”
received a score of 3.3. When asked if they thought they were likely to hire
the candidate, John was seen as the candidate not only more likely to be
hired, but also the candidate the professors would be more willing to mentor.
The professors also were asked to propose a potential starting salary for
the candidates. Candidates named John were thought worthy of $30,328 per
year. The Jennifer applicants would get $26,508.
Perhaps most surprising of all, responses from female professors were
virtually the same as those of their male counterparts! 5
We are sometimes led to believe that scientists are particularly rational,
but in looking at these results, one might ask if scientists are more or less
rational than anyone else. The results from this particular study do not seem
to indicate as much.
David Miller, an associate professor of internal medicine at the Wake Forest
University School of Medicine decided to explore whether medical students’
responses to patients were affected by the extent to which the students had a
bias about obesity. Between 2008 and 2010, Miller and his colleagues tested

xvi

Introduction

310 third-year students. The students came from twenty-five states within the
United States and from twelve other countries. A total of 73 percent of the
students were white and 56 percent were men.
The students were tested for their reactions to people of different weights
using the Implicit Association Test (IAT), a computer-based testing system
developed by researchers at Harvard University, the University of Washington, and the University of Virginia that I will discuss at greater length later in
this book. The particular IAT that Miller and his colleagues used asked the
students to pair images of heavier people and thinner people with negative or
positive words, using a computer keyboard in a timed exercise.
The race, age, or gender of the students made no difference in their
responses. According to the IAT results, 56 percent of the students tested had
an unconscious weight bias that was characterized as either moderate or
strong. A total of 17 percent of the students’ results demonstrated bias
against people who were thin and 39 percent demonstrated bias against people who were heavy. And yet, two-thirds of the anti-fat students thought they
were neutral bias, as did all of the anti-thin students.
Miller remarked in a Wake Forest University news release that “because
anti-fat stigma is so prevalent and a significant barrier to the treatment of
obesity, teaching medical students to recognize and mitigate this bias is
crucial to improving the care for the two-thirds of American adults who are
now overweight or obese.” 6
Ironically, researchers at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns
Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, also studied the impact of
weight on the doctor-patient relationship but from a different angle. They
found that overweight patients tend to trust doctors more when they also are
overweight, and that patients with normal body mass indexes tend to trust
overweight doctors less. 7 “Our findings indicate that physicians with normal
BMI more frequently reported discussing weight loss with patients than did
overweight or obese physicians,” said Susan Bleich, the study’s lead author
and an assistant professor at the Bloomberg School’s health policy and management department. “Physicians with normal BMI also have greater confidence in their ability to provide diet and exercise counseling and perceive
their weight loss advice as trustworthy when compared to overweight or
obese physicians.” 8
Who’s judging who?
A story I once heard comes from the ageless tradition of the Sufis, the
mystics of Islam. It concerns the idea of looking for truth in all of the wrong
places. The story is a thirteenth-century fable about Nasreddin Hodja, Turkey’s renowned ancient trickster. The story has Nasreddin walking across a
border back to his country from a neighboring one. He walked along while
pulling a donkey by a rope. On the donkey’s back was a huge pile of straw.
The border patrol guard, aware of Nasreddin’s reputation for tricks, was sure

Introduction

xvii

he must have been smuggling something and so, determined to catch the
cheat, he stopped him for questioning.
“What are you smuggling?” the guard asked Nasreddin. “Nothing,” Nasreddin said. “I’m going to search you,” said the guard, and he did just that,
searching Nasreddin, unpacking the huge pack of straw on the donkey, and
finding nothing. Frustrated, he let Nasreddin pass.
A few days later, Nasreddin was back again with another donkey full of
sticks and straw, again he was searched, and again nothing was found. For
months this continued, every other week. Same Nasreddin, with a donkey
and a pile of worthless material, but nothing valuable was found.
Finally, one day the completely frustrated guard spoke up to Nasreddin.
“Today is my last day on this job,” said the guard. “I know that you have
been smuggling something, but I have not been able to find it. It has been
keeping me up at night to know what you are doing. I am leaving my job so I
no longer want to get you in trouble, but please, for my peace of mind, tell
me what you have been stealing.”
“Okay then,” Nasreddin said. “I have been smuggling donkeys.”
In our struggle for fairness, for equality, for inclusiveness, have we been
looking in the right places or have we been looking for trouble in bundles of
harmless straw?
This is an especially important question to ask at the present time, as I
write this book almost twenty years since the attacks of 9-11, and more than
ten years since the start of the dramatic recession of 2008. These two events
created somewhat of a nationwide posttraumatic stress syndrome in our society, and have contributed to a regression in the very behaviors of bias I have
discussed thus far. They have fundamentally moved us back to an environment in which leaders are once again baiting their followers by generating
hate towards others. There is no real surprise here, as history has shown us
time and again that economic stress creates a greater sense of threat and fear
of “the other.” On a societal scale, hate crimes go up when the economy goes
down. On a global scale, dictatorial and fascist regimes are almost always
preceded by economic upheaval, whether it is Hitler in Germany, Mussolini
in Italy, Franco in Spain, or the Taliban in Afghanistan. These kinds of
movements have almost always focused on identifying an “other” who has to
be controlled, dethroned, or annihilated.
Consider the anti-immigrant sentiment that has swelled in the United
States and Europe during the past decade. In the United States, the quintessential “nation of immigrants,” a country in which virtually every person
who is not of Native American origin comes from an immigrant heritage,
anti-immigrant zeal is at its highest level in generations. In Denmark, the
Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, and Germany, “nationalist” parties have risen
with an all too familiar race-based fervor.

xviii

Introduction

I have spent the past thirty years studying human diversity and engaging
in direct interaction with hundreds of thousands of people. These sorts of
reactions are not new to me. However, what has become apparent, and has
been proven by research, is the pervasiveness of this phenomena of bias and
most especially, how completely unconscious most of us are about it.
Over the past decade we have been given scientific tools to study this
question in ways that have not been previously available. While the brain still
remains a great mystery, breakthroughs in the neurological and cognitive
sciences are teaching us more than we have known in all of our history of
medicine. Great developments in the social sciences are teaching us more
than we have ever known about human behavior, both on individual and
collective bases. Science is giving us insights that lead us to conclusions that
are very different from those we might imagine possible.
And that is my purpose for writing this book. After a lifetime of working
on and caring about these issues, I believe these new insights into human
consciousness offer us the possibility of a new leap forward. The possibility
of a deeper understanding of the human condition that may hold the potential
for not only solving some of our specific problems, but transforming the way
we relate as a species is one I believe must be embraced with vigor.
However, I want to be clear that I am not writing this book with any sense
that I know how to fix people. In fact, the more I have studied unconscious
bias, the more I have found myself recognizing my own. Let me give you an
example of what I mean.
A while ago I was in Jackson, Mississippi, working with the deans and
faculty members at Jackson State University, one of the nation’s historically
black colleges and universities. After working for two days I had to fly
through Memphis, Tennessee, to LaGuardia Airport in New York to work
with another client for the remainder of the week. I landed in Memphis and
arrived at my gate for the last flight out that evening to New York. As I was
sitting down and opening my computer to do some work, the gate attendant
announced that our flight had been delayed for forty-five minutes. Almost
immediately a voice bellowed from behind me in a deep Southern accent.
“You talkin’ to us lady?” I turned around and there he was, a man I would
best describe as Santa Claus with an attitude. Mid-sixties, white, well-fed,
white beard and hair, wearing overalls and a flannel shirt. In his hand was a
car magazine. Boy, did I have him pegged. I smiled to myself and then went
back to work.
Forty-five minutes passed and it was time to board the plane. I had been
upgraded to first class because of my airline miles and walked down the
passage to my aisle seat when, lo and behold, who should be sitting at the
window but “angry Santa” himself. I have to admit that I wasn’t thrilled, but
we did the “airplane greeting nod” I’m sure many of you are familiar with,
and sat down for the flight. As soon as we took off and were able to do so, I

Introduction

xix

took out my computer and got back to work, preparing a course I would be
teaching the next week at Georgetown University. My neighbor was reading
his car magazine. At some point he got up to go to the restroom and when he
returned he asked me, “What are you, a professor or something?” Girding
myself a bit for a possible reaction, I explained what I did and that I wasn’t
really a professor but was just teaching a course. He barely reacted, and we
went back to our parallel activities.
This continued until we approached New York, when the pilot announced
our final descent and that the time had come to put all electronics away.
Experienced flyers know this is the time when “airplane chat” often takes
place, because it is now safe to start a conversation knowing you won’t get
stuck with somebody for two hours, someone you really might not talk to for
even two minutes anywhere else. I turned toward the gentleman and asked
him, “What takes you to New York?”
“I’m going to a professional meeting,” he responded.
I immediately noticed the hearing aid he had in his right ear, which I
hadn’t seen before. Maybe that explained his reaction to the announcement?
“What do you do?” I asked.
“I’m a radiologist,” he replied.
So here I was, a diversity consultant with thirty years of experience, and
the guy who I had pegged with all of my socioeconomic stereotypes was, in
fact, a doctor. But it didn’t stop at that fact.
“Do you have a particular area of interest in radiology?” I inquired.
“Yes,” he responded, getting very animated. “We’re using active brain
scans to learn about how the human brain responds to various stimuli, especially when people interact with different kinds of people.”
In other words, he was an expert in one of the very fields that I am the
most interested in. If it wasn’t for my immediate stereotyping of him, and all
of the biases that it brought up in me, I might have learned as much about the
brain in that two-hour flight as I had learned in my research during the past
year!
Gulp!
We all have this mechanism built into the way we see the world. Through
the course of this book, I’ll be discussing why that is, what purpose it serves,
and how the brain operates in that way. But before we get to that, let me give
you a quick example. This is a story you may have heard.
A man and his son get on an airplane. The plane takes off and shortly
thereafter is hit by a tremendous storm, which causes a crash landing. The
father is killed instantly, but miraculously, the son is injured but survives. An
ambulance rushes him from the scene to the local hospital, where he is
immediately taken to the operating room. After the boy is prepped for surgery, the surgeon approaches the operating table but then stops suddenly and
says, “I can’t operate on this boy—he is my son!”

xx

Introduction

Who is the surgeon?
This joke, or similar ones have been around for years and most people
probably know the answer: The surgeon is the boy’s mother!
Or is that accurate? Maybe, or perhaps it is the boy’s other father, because
he is the child of a gay male couple?
Our minds quickly go to the solutions that make the most sense, and often
miss other possibilities that are right in front of us. In later chapters I discuss
in more detail as to how and why this happens.
My intention in writing this book is not to wag the finger of selfrighteousness at you, the reader, or to act like this is something that I am
immune to any more than anyone else. In fact, I am very clear that we are all,
as human beings, in this boat together!
One of the challenges that we have had in dealing with patterns of unconscious bias is that we have evolved into a “good person/bad person” paradigm of looking at issues relating to differences. I discussed this at length in
my first book, ReInventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose and Performance. 9 The whole way we
have approached the work is built upon the assumption that good people treat
people equitably, and it is bad people who do all of those terrible things that
we read and about in any manner of media. Often, this is especially true for
people who come from a tradition of their own pain regarding “otherness.”
For example, my family is of Eastern European Jewish origin. We lost dozens of family members in the Holocaust. I grew up hearing lots of talk and
concern about anti-Semitism from various relatives. But I also heard questionable comments from these same relatives about people of different races.
I have heard African Americans complain about racism but who then made
homophobic or heterosexist comments. I have heard gays and lesbians make
questionable comments about immigrants.
Do you know anybody who doesn’t have something going on with some
“other” group?
In fact, what the research shows pretty definitively (and I’ll talk about
some of this research in later chapters), is that most examples of bias, especially those that deferentially affect people in organizational life, are not
conscious in origin at all. They are not decisions made because somebody is
“out to get” somebody, but rather because all human beings have bias. Possessing bias is part and parcel of being human. And the more we think we are
immune to it, the greater the likelihood that our own biases will be invisible
or unconscious to us!
The challenge, of course, is that this is difficult for most of us to confront.
Most people I know like to think of themselves as “good people.” We like to
think that we treat everybody around us fairly, at least most of the time, and
we shudder to think that we might be biased in our nature. And yet it is
apparent that to be biased is almost as normal as breathing, and that our

Introduction

xxi

hidden fears and insecurities often get expressed in the various ways we react
and respond to each other. So, as we have evolved into a greater sense of
shared understanding that it is not “right” to have bias, have we gotten to the
point where we can have racism without racists, sexism without sexists, and
so on? And if so, how does this require us to reinvent how we deal with these
issues if we are going to create organizations and societies in which all
people have an equitable chance of success?
There are some people who are concerned about the movement toward a
greater understanding of unconscious bias. Some fear that the focus on bias
from an unconscious standpoint may provide cover for people who can easily
deny their prejudice by claiming it is unconscious. R. Richard Banks and
Richard Thompson Ford of Stanford Law School at Stanford University state
The better explanation for the ascendance of the unconscious bias discourse is
that assertions of widespread unconscious bias are more politically palatable
than parallel claims about covert bias. . . . The invocation of unconscious bias
levels neither accusation nor blame, so much as it identifies a quasi-medical
ailment that distorts thinking and behavior. People may be willing to acknowledge the possibility of unconscious bias within them, even as they would
vigorously deny harboring conscious bias. The unconscious bias claim thus
facilitates a consensus that the race problem persists. Despite its ostensible
political benefits, the unconscious bias discourse is as likely to subvert as to
further the cause of racial justice. 10

These are valid and reasonable concerns. The fact that somebody exhibits
bias unconsciously does not change the impact of the behavior. Assume for
the sake of argument that the referees mentioned earlier were motivated by
unconscious bias as opposed to a conscious desire to help some of the players
and hurt some of the others. Does it ultimately matter to the players if they
foul out of a big game because of that desire? Obviously not. However, we
do know that the way we perceive people’s actions affects how we feel and
how we choose to interact. In a recent study, Princeton University professors
Daniel L. Ames and Susan T. Fiske found that “people saw intended harms
as worse than unintended harms, even though the two harms were identical”
(emphasis added). Ames and Fiske went on to suggest that as a result of this
phenomenon, “people may therefore focus on intentional harms to the neglect of unintentional (but equally damaging) harms.” 11
At the same time, we know that one of the great barriers to getting people
to look at our own biases is the shame and guilt that comes when we feel like
we are being made to look as if we have done something wrong, or that we
are under attack. This shame and guilt causes defensiveness and reduces the
chances of reaching people.
These biases make an impact upon each and every aspect of our lives.
They affect the way we respond to threats. They make an impact upon the

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Introduction

way doctors and patients interact. They affect the judgments we make about
others. In organizational life, they influence how we interview people, who
we hire, who we give job assignments to, who we promote, and who we’re
willing to take a chance on. In fact, they make their mark upon virtually
every aspect of organizational life. They also affect the way teachers educate
students and how parents treat their own children. Virtually every important
decision we make in life is influenced by these biases, and the more they
remain in the unconscious, the less likely we are to make the best decisions
we are able to make.
My purpose in writing this book is to find a way to invite people into a
conversation about our own bias. To recognize that who we are and who we
want to be as a society will ultimately be defined by our ability to raise our
consciousness level beyond our tendency to simply react to fear. I am not
calling for people to ignore unconscious bias. On the contrary, I am hoping
that by understanding it we can learn to work with it and reduce its ability to
dominate our decision making. I know there are psychologists who say this is
almost impossible. And yet, my experience in working with hundreds of
thousands of people has been such that I know we can make inroads in our
abilities to be more conscious.
There are some who may say, “Just tell me what to do!” Ah, if only life
were that simple. If so, then all we would have to do to lose weight would be
to learn about diets, but many of us know how well that has worked (or not).
Albert Einstein reportedly once said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and
my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I knew the proper question, I
could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” Transforming our fundamental ways of living and being in the world requires learning new information and behaviors. It also requires a shift in our mind-sets and emotions
about the subject at hand. That’s what I am attempting to create in this book.
We will start by looking at what bias is and why it is so essential to us as
human beings. We also will explore what the neurological and cognitive
sciences are teaching us about how the brain processes bias. We will look at
how unconscious bias affects some of the most fundamental aspects of our
lives, and the various ways it manifests itself. I will then share with you some
of the resources that can help you learn about your own bias, and some of the
ways that we are learning, individually and collectively, to reprogram our
responses so that we can make better choices for ourselves, and our organizations and communities. By the time you reach the end of this book, you will
not only have a better understanding of what you think, but of how you think!
Let’s get started.

Chapter One

If You Are Human, You Are Biased

Our conscious motivations, ideas, and beliefs are a blend of false information,
biases, irrational passions, rationalizations, prejudices, in which morsels of
truth swim around and give the reassurance albeit false, that the whole mixture is real and true. The thinking processes attempt to organize this whole
cesspool of illusions according to the laws of plausibility. This level of consciousness is supposed to reflect reality; it is the map we use for organizing
our life. —Erich Fromm, German psychologist and psychoanalyst

Interviews can be challenging to almost anybody and in almost any circumstance, but there are few circumstances more confronting than a medical
school student admissions interview. Imagine. You have worked hard your
whole life to be a good student, and even an elite student. Medical school
admissions are among the most competitive processes people will ever face.
Virtually every other candidate you are competing against has an outstanding
résumé with exceptional grades. The interview process weighs heavy on
people’s decisions because it often separates the merely good students from
those who have the intelligence and the presence to be a good doctor.
The challenge, of course, is that interviews are subject to many unconscious biases based on any number of extraneous factors relating to the
candidate being interviewed, the interviewer, and the environment in which
the interview is being conducted. Two physicians at the University of Toronto, Donald Redelmeier and Simon Baxter, decided to explore one of these
more extraneous factors. 1 They were curious about the observation as to how
it seemed that prospective students interviewed on rainy days tended to get
lower ratings in their interviews than people interviewed on sunny days.
Now I’m sure anybody reading this will agree that determining whether
to accept students into medical school, or any other academic program for
that matter, based on what the weather is on the particular day they are
1

2

Chapter 1

scheduled for interviews, is the height of folly. How absurd would it be to
base a decision on whether to admit a student, based on something so obviously random and out of the student’s control?
Absurd, perhaps. Nonetheless, it happens.
Redelmeier and Baxter collected the results of medical school interviews
that were conducted at the University of Toronto between 2004 and 2009.
They compiled all of the scores from the interviews, almost all of which were
conducted in the early spring. The scores ranged from 0 to 20.3. A score of
10 or less was considered “unsuitable,” 12 “marginal,” 14 “fair,” 16 “good,”
18 “excellent,” and 20 was considered “outstanding.” They then researched
the Canadian National Climate Archive to track the weather on the days that
the interviews were conducted.
Over the course of that time, Redelmeier and Baxter identified 2,926
candidates who were interviewed. The demographics of the interviewees
were found to be unrelated to the results. However, those interviewed on
rainy days were rated lower than those who were screened on sunny days. In
fact, when they compared the results against the students’ scores on their
primary testing mechanism, the Medical College Admission Tests (MCATs),
they found that the difference in interview scores was equivalent to the
students reducing their MCAT scores by 10 percent! Given the intense competition between high-performing applicants, this is enough to determine
whether or not, or perhaps, “weather or not,” a student may get accepted, or
even become a doctor at all.
Is it likely that interviewers responsible for choosing students for medical
school were likely to have said to themselves, “It’s raining out so I think I’ll
give this student a lower score,” or is it far more likely that they were
unconscious to the impact that the weather made upon their mood? And the
manner in which their mood influenced their perceptions of students? Most
of us can certainly imagine that a bad weather day, dealing with traffic, and
so forth, could impact our mood, and that our mood could impact an interview, but do we consider those influences when we are doing the evaluation
of the person?
It is not a far stretch to consider that similar environmental or other
concerns might affect us when we are conducting hiring interviews in business or making other business decisions, grading student papers, or determining hundreds of other choices, including those that are seemingly insignificant as well as very significant.
Unconscious influences dominate our everyday life. What we react to, are
influenced by, see or don’t see, are all determined by reactions that happen
deep within our psyche. Reactions which are largely unknown to us.
In a way, we all know this to be true. Most people have, at some point in
their lives asked themselves what made them do or not do a certain thing. We
find ourselves curious as to why we don’t always act in a way that is consis-

If You Are Human, You Are Biased

3

tent with what we would like to do. Why do we eat too much, or lose
patience with our loved ones, even as we had consciously appealed to our
“higher” selves to do otherwise? We often have a hard time motivating
ourselves to do things, even when we have determined that they are important. The comedian Flip Wilson built a whole career in the 1960s and 70s
upon the punch line of “the devil made me do it!” a line of thinking most of
us can relate to in those moments when it seems like someone or something
else is dictating our actions or choices.
We are constantly making decisions that are influenced by unconscious
biases. In fact, even when our biases seem conscious, they may be influenced
by a pattern of unconscious assumptions that we have absorbed throughout
our lives. It is like a polluted river. We may do everything we can to clean the
river as it flows downstream, without having any consciousness about the
pollutants that are being dumped in it by a factory or sewage plant upstream.
Consider the biases that people clearly have in our society today toward
LGBTQ people. We have gone through a generation in which we have seen
breakthroughs in marriage equality: the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the
military; a dramatic shift in the presence of LGBTQ actors and actresses and
themed programs in the arts; a lesbian elected mayor of Houston, Texas, and
even a gay man running for president. And yet, bias against LGBTQ people
continues to proliferate.
A May 13, 2013, Gallup poll found that 45 percent of the American
public believed that same-sex marriages should not be valid. 2 Even after two
July 2013 rulings by a conservative U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for
same-sex marriage in California and established, by declaring unconstitutional the Defense of Marriage Act, that same-sex couples were eligible for
federal benefits under the law, overt discrimination and resistance to the
rights of LGBTQ people still persists. Even in the entertainment industry,
where most people see a great deal of open expression of sexual orientation,
a Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists
study found that “the survey, based on responses from over 5,600 union
members, showed nearly half of lesbian and gay respondents and 27 percent
of bisexual respondents ‘strongly agreed’ that producers and studio executives believe that lesbian and gay performers are less marketable.” 3
However, are even these overt biases truly “conscious”? While there is no
doubt many people are aware of the fact that they are uncomfortable or
downright hostile to LGBTQ people, the cause for those animosities might
still be unconscious. From where do these biases come? Most of us were
probably quite young when we started to hear that “boys should play with
these toys, but not those.” How old were most of us when we first saw
modeling among the people around us about what was “normal” and what
was “sick,” “sinful,” “gross,” or other such descriptors? When we started

4

Chapter 1

going to our places of worship and hearing about biblical readings? When we
heard people telling jokes about gays or lesbians?
As Brett Pelham, the associate executive director for graduate and postgraduate education at the American Psychological Association, has said,
“virtually all bias is unconscious bias. We have learned to trust women to be
nurturing and men to be powerful, for example, in much the same way that
Pavlov’s puppies trusted ringing bells to predict the arrival of meat powder. . . . Being biased is how we get through life without evaluating everything afresh every time we experience it.”
Even when our biases are conscious downstream, their upstream causes
may be very much hidden in our unconscious. For a long time, it has been
our general belief that stereotypes and biases were the purview of bigoted
people. However, an explosion of studies about the unconscious over the past
two decades is revealing a truth that is very uncomfortable. All people use
biases and stereotypes, all of the time. And all of us do so without realizing
that we are doing it.
In any case, what is bias? Why do we have it?
Bias has been defined as “a particular tendency or inclination, especially
one that prevents unprejudiced consideration of a question.” 4
While we have generally thought about bias in relationship to people and
prejudice, we have biases in all aspects of our lives. We are biased toward
particular kinds of television shows or movies, certain foods or kinds of
foods, as well as certain kinds of books or stories. Virtually any preference
we have is likely to have some bias associated with us. And they are, for the
most part, unconscious.
This doesn’t mean that every time we make a wrong determination about
somebody that it is based on bias. In that sense, it is important to distinguish
between what we might call “logical fallacies” and biases. People do sometimes follow faulty logic that leads to an error in reasoning. When we take a
position about something based on that faulty logic, we call that a fallacy.
Biases, on the other hand, result from times when we have some kind of
“glitch” in our thinking. These may result from social conditioning, belief
systems that we have been taught or exposed to, particular incidents that we
remember, or any number of other assumed “truths” that we have picked up
along the way.
The question of bias has entered the political arena, as well as the question of whether biases can often be associated with one political philosophy
or another. However, the degree to which we see ourselves as “progressive”
or “liberal” on these issues, or the degree to which we may have been the
victim of other people’s biases has little or no impact on the unconscious
biases we may possess. Ironically, on an unconscious level, somebody (even
a person of color) who sees himself as liberal on racial issues, for example,
may have unconscious biases that are not much different from those pos-

If You Are Human, You Are Biased

5

sessed by an overt racist. Or somebody who sees herself as progressive on
gender issues might still have hidden gender-based biases.
For instance, consider the attitudes that people have toward men and
women regarding who is more suited to a career and who is more suited to
staying at home. When researchers at the University of Virginia asked men
and women to respond on a conscious level as to how strongly they associated women with careers, the differences between men and women were quite
pronounced. Women were almost twice as likely to see a connection between
women and careers and men almost twice as likely to not see that connection.
However, when tested to see what their unconscious attitudes are to the same
question, the disparity almost disappeared. It turns out that on an unconscious level, the differential is less than 20 percent. On an unconscious level,
we all have absorbed the same stereotypes and have similar internal value
systems, often completely inconsistent with our conscious values!
How might this difference in perception show up on a day-to-day basis?
Perhaps, in assumptions that leaders make about a woman’s willingness to
travel and be away from her family or take an overseas job assignment. Or in
how willing a woman might be to ask for something that she needs, or a raise
in pay. Or in how much credibility we give to claims of sexual harassment.
Or in how much a man might listen to a woman’s point of view. Or how
comfortable men or women feel about women with children working on
flextime arrangements, even when it is stated company policy to allow such
arrangements! The dissonance between our conscious value systems and our
unconscious drivers can cause confusion to both ourselves and other people
who are observing us.
These are often subtle perceptions. Like the story about the father and son
in the airplane crash, we don’t consciously say, “I’m going to ignore the
possibility that the doctor could be the mother or the other gay father!” Yet,
those images or thoughts don’t even occur to us as we contemplate the
problem. Bias serves as a fundamental protective mechanism for human
beings.
Psychologist Joseph LeDoux has referred to bias as an unconscious “danger detector” that determines the safety of a person or situation, before we
even have a chance to cognitively consider it. 5 For example, in more primitive times, if we came across a group of people around the river drawing
water, we had to decide instantly whether it was “them” or “us.” The wrong
choice might have led to our death. We learned, through evolution, that
making those determinations quickly could save our lives. Unconscious bias
comes from social stereotypes, attitudes, opinions, and stigma we form about
certain groups of people outside of our own conscious awareness, and can be
fed by snippets of information that we might get from biased media or social
media or other sources, which are often taken out of context.

6

Chapter 1

The same is true when we encounter other circumstances in life. We teach
our children to have a “bias” about the danger in crossing streets. We want
them to instinctively stop at the curb when they are chasing a ball or walking
to school. We do the same when we are determining whether a stove is hot or
cold. We cautiously touch it to test it. Our minds have been wired to protect
us in this way.
The important part to realize is that we have these biases for a reason.
Imagine if you didn’t have any biases and you went out into the world. How
would you know whether somebody approaching you was “friendly” or not?
How would you determine how to relate to different circumstances? If somebody approached you with a knife in their hand, raised high in the air, would
you look at them and say, “I wonder what that is and what you plan to do
with it?” or would you immediately switch into “fight or flight” mode and
defend yourself?
To manage and negotiate an extremely complex and busy world, we have
developed the capacity to compartmentalize things and people we are exposed to on a regular basis. We put them in observable categories so we can
quickly determine how they fit into our background of experience and then
determine what we can expect from them in the future. Gender, race, sexual
orientation, age, and so on, are all such categories. For instance, it makes it
easier to know that somebody with gray hair is likely older, as opposed to not
having any idea of the age of the person with whom we are dealing. It is not a
big jump, then, for the mind to associate qualities and values to those categories, for example: good or bad; right or wrong; smart or stupid; safe or
unsafe.
One of the most powerful ways we do this is by creating stereotypes. We
begin to learn how to “read” different kinds of people. As we encounter
them, we instantly compare them to other people we have encountered before. Were the others friendly, safe, and welcoming? If so, then we are likely
to feel comfortable with these individuals. On the other hand, were the others
hostile or unfriendly? Then the mind sends a different message: Be careful!
Stereotypes provide a shortcut that helps us navigate through our world more
quickly, more efficiently, and, our minds believe, more safely.
Of course, even when we haven’t encountered a particular kind of person
before, we may have the same judgments and assessments based on things
that we have heard or learned about “people like that.” As far back as 1906,
William Graham Sumner, the first person to hold an academic chair in sociology at Yale University, identified the phenomenon of “in-group/out-group
bias.” Sumner wrote that “each group nourishes its own pride and vanity,
boasts itself superior, exists in its own divinities, and looks with contempt on
outsiders.” 6 This phenomenon is magnified when the “in” group is the dominant or majority culture in a particular circumstance. Because the dominant
cultural group in any environment usually creates the standard and accept-

If You Are Human, You Are Biased

7

able norms and behaviors for that group, people from nondominant groups
often will be seen as “different,” “abnormal,” “less than,” or even “sick” or
“sinful.” Business cultures, to cite one example, are generally male dominant. Most business leaders are overwhelmingly male. The cultures of companies have largely been around from a time when even more men were in
leadership. This has created a male-dominated cultural model in most businesses. And yet most men don’t look at their business cultures as wanting
things to be done in “a man’s way.” They see it as wanting things to be done
“the right way,” without even realizing that, in their unconscious minds, the
“right way” and “the man’s way” are virtually synonymous.
If we were to look at this thinking objectively, we could see a certain
logic to it. If you were creating a mind and evolving it over the course of
millennia, would it make more sense for that mind to be more sensitive, in
encountering new people and experiences, to things that are potentially
pleasant or things that are potentially dangerous? The obvious answer is that
the one that might kill me is more important to spot than the one that might
give me a “nice surprise.” When we do not know much about this person, or
these people, they can become potentially dangerous to us. Until proven
otherwise. We are programmed to notice that potential threat before we
notice “friend.” To notice potential “danger” before we notice potential
“pleasure.” It helps keep us alive.
This isn’t limited to people. We stereotype all kinds of things to try to
figure them out. We see something and our mind automatically sorts it,
consciously or unconsciously saying, “that reminds me of . . .” as a way of
identifying what we are dealing with at that moment. Pelham has studied this
pattern of behavior, even as we relate to dogs. 7 If you show people pictures
of a bulldog, a sheepdog, a poodle, and a pointer, and ask them which is
“loyal,” “prissy,” “persistent,” or “clumsy,” you will get the same answers
almost every time. Some of these stereotypes have even become part of our
language (e.g., “he was as persistent as a bulldog!”). Of course we might say
these are common characteristics in these breeds, but not every dog in any
breed acts the same way, yet we still make the assumption. It is quicker and
easier that way, and much more efficient for our brains. And it is mostly
unconscious. While we have tended to look at the dynamics of unconscious
bias most particularly concerning racial and gender identity, unconscious
bias patterns exist in all areas of life and are influenced by factors that might
surprise us. For example, it is no surprise that we make certain decisions
based on our hand dominance. We may sit in a certain place because we are
right-handed or left-handed and don’t want to be constantly bumping up
against the person next to us. All of that makes sense. But a study from the
Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands seems to show
that our responses to hand dominance may influence us more than we think.

8

Chapter 1

In the study, which was led by Daniel Casasanto, researchers found that
not only do people tend to choose more toward their dominant hand (in other
words, if you are right-handed, you are more likely to choose something on
your right side than on your left), but that we also respond to others based on
their use of one hand or another. 8 In addition, we may be able to read
people’s positive and negative attitudes based on the hands they inadvertently use.
“In laboratory tests, right- and left-handers associate positive ideas like
honesty and intelligence with their dominant side of space and negative ideas
with their non-dominant side,” said Casasanto. “Right- and left-handers were
found to associate positive ideas like intelligence, attractiveness, and honesty
with their dominant side and negative ideas with their non-dominant side.”
The researchers also analyzed the speeches of politicians to determine whether or not this pattern played out. Studying the 2004 and 2008 American
presidential elections, they tracked 3,012 spoken clauses and 1,747 gestures
from the four presidential candidates, two of whom were right-handed (John
Kerry and George Bush), and two of whom were left-handed (Barack Obama
and John McCain). In both cases, the dominant hand was more associated
with positive statements and the non-dominant more associated with negative
ones. In other words, if the candidate was right-handed, they used their right
hand to gesture when they made a positive statement, and vice versa.
Now imagine hiring somebody because they happen to sit in the chair on
the right side of your desk versus the one on the left side of your desk. That
would be kind of a crazy way to decide who to hire, wouldn’t it? And, of
course, in addition to being patently unfair to the person who happened to be
on “your wrong side,” it also is a terrible way to make a talent management
decision. Your chances of getting the best person have been reduced to a dice
roll.
For the most part we have largely thought about bias from the standpoint
of those incidents where people have a negative bias against somebody,
which then has a destructive impact on that person’s chances to be successful
(e.g., a woman who doesn’t get hired for a job because somebody has a
negative gender bias about women). However, it is much more complex than
that.
These destructive uses of biases against a certain group (Q1 in figure 1.1)
are the ones we have focused most of our attention. We have, in fact, created
laws to be sure that people are not discriminated against in this way. But they
are not the only ways that bias plays out in our daily lives.
As odd as it may seem, there also are constructive uses of biases against
certain groups (Q2 in figure 1.1). They can benefit us in many ways. We
determine that people who have aggressive personality types might not be
the best fit for a customer service job. Or that people who don’t have certain
technology skills and background won’t be a good match for a job that

If You Are Human, You Are Biased

9

Figure 1.1.

requires computer proficiency. If we didn’t have these filters, hiring would
be almost oppressive, because we would start with a huge number of résumés
and have to look at all of them more carefully than time might allow.
I know that many people would say those are “qualifications,” and that
looking for qualifications is not the same as having biases. In fact, qualifications are simply biases that we have agreed upon and codified. There are
hundreds of examples of people who have performed in extraordinary ways
who do not have the “normal” qualifications for their roles. If qualifications
were the only measure of success, than college dropouts such as Steve Jobs,
Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg would still be unknown. However, understandably, we have determined that while there are occasional creative eccentrics like those three, it just doesn’t make good sense to look at 150
résumés and not take education into account. So we use biases against the
lack of those characteristics to “filter out” certain people who we might have
determined are not a good fit for the job. We do the same thing when we are
in dangerous situations. For instance, we might be especially attentive to
locking our car in a location with a higher crime rate.
All the same, it is important to note that we should be thoughtful and very
conscious about how much we take these negative biases for granted. There

10

Chapter 1

are always exceptions, even to the most dependable of patterns (Jobs, Gates,
and Zuckerberg, for example!). So, while using negative biases can be helpful, we should never assume they are absolute. The annals of sport are filled
with examples of players who were “too small to be successful” by “normal”
standards. Yet they were able to succeed far beyond expectations. The same
can be said for constructive uses of biases for a particular kind of person (Q3
in figure 1.1). We often look for certain circumstances or people because we
have a history with them that tells us we can be more assured that they will
meet our needs. People who have certain college degrees, or went to a certain
college; certain personality types that fit a particular job or situation. Language skills, or any number of other “qualifications” that we have determined might make the person a better fit for the job. Once again, having
these filters can be very helpful, but we have to be careful that we don’t
develop blind spots that stop us from seeing exceptional people or circumstances that are “exceptions to the rule.”
Finally, we also have to be mindful of the potentially destructive effects
of these “positive” biases (Q4 in figure 1.1). This can show up in several
different ways. For instance, we may place unrealistic expectations on somebody from a particular group because of a positive bias we have about “that
sort of people.” I remember a Chinese student once telling me, “I’m so tired
of people expecting me to be good at math and sciences because I’m Asian.
It’s just not my thing. I like the social sciences more. But everybody, from
my parents to my teachers seems to think I have to ‘try harder’ when my
math grades aren’t straight As, even though I do really well in the courses
that matter to me.”
Another way the potentially destructive effects of biases favoring a group
or person can show up is when one person suffers because we have a positive
bias toward somebody else. Imagine you are interviewing two candidates and
something about one of them reminds you of your sister. You may not even
realize it. It just occurs to you that “there is something about this person that I
like.” As a result, you pay more attention to them, listen more carefully, and
are even warmer toward them in the interview. The interview goes great and
you want to hire the person. However, what may be lost in the “glow” of that
positive bias is that the other candidate never had a fair shot because of the
bias that you had in favor of the first person.
It would be great if we were totally conscious about every decision we
made and never used bias. However, such a thought is not only unrealistic
but impossible. Our processing would slow to a near halt. The key is to
become more and more conscious about when our biases are serving our
greater objectives.
We develop biases toward people and behaviors all throughout our lives.
We learn that to relate in a particular way is “better” than another way, or
that we prefer people who act or look a particular way. We can sometimes

If You Are Human, You Are Biased

11

even develop patterns of behavior that work well enough for us in one domain that we unconscious and habitually use them in places where they do
not work nearly as well.
As an example, on May 5, 2013, the Washington Post reported that:
After they leave military service, veterans of the two wars (Iraq and Afghanistan) have a 75 percent higher rate of fatal motor vehicle accidents than do
civilians. Troops still in uniform have a higher risk of crashing their cars in the
months immediately after returning from deployment than in the months immediately before. People who have had multiple tours in combat zones are at
highest risk for traffic accidents.

This is obviously of great concern. The story went on to read:
The most common explanation is that troops bring back driving habits that
were lifesaving in war zones but are dangerous on America’s roads. They
include racing through intersections, straddling lanes, swerving on bridges
and, for some, not wearing seat belts because they hinder a rapid escape. 9

This is one of the great challenges we have when our biases are unconscious.
Without realizing it, we can apply the same behavior, or evaluation criteria
that worked in one domain, and find that they are not at all helpful, or even
tragic in another.
IS THERE ONLY ONE KIND OF BIAS?
Is bias basically something we have or don’t have, or are there different kinds
of biases? Amy Cuddy, at Harvard Business School; Susan Fiske at Princeton University; and Peter Glick, at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, studied these distinctions and created a valuable map for looking at
the way we process bias. 10
Cuddy, Fiske, and Glick were able to identify two distinct forms of bias.
The first is bias based on warmth. In their terms, “our warmth scales have
included good-natured, trustworthy, tolerant, friendly, and sincere.” 11
In short, do you consider the personal likable? Is it somebody you feel
comfortable being around? On the other hand, the second form is bias based
on competence, which they classify as “capable, skillful, intelligent, and
confident.” 12 Looking at bias in this way can be very helpful. We may have
inherent biases about groups of people, biases which are very strong, but are
very different between the different groups. In extensive research, Cuddy,
Fiske, and Glick found there were some groups people tended to respond to
with a low degree of both warmth and competence (e.g., welfare recipients,
homeless people, poor people, and Arabs). Others we may feel a high degree
of warmth toward, but not see as very competent (e.g., the elderly and people

12

Chapter 1

with physical or mental disabilities). Still others we may see as very competent, but not feel very much warmth toward at all (e.g., Asians, rich people,
and Jews). And finally, there are those for whom we feel a high level of
warmth, and a high level of competence (e.g., housewives, Christians, middle
class Americans). 13 How we feel about each of these groups might yield very
different behaviors.
Warmth seems to be the primary dimension in terms of how we respond
to people. We are more likely to first emotionally respond to whether or not
we like someone, and only secondarily respond to whether or not we believe
they are competent. Cuddy and her study associates suggest this results in
more active facilitation. They wrote that “perceived warmth predicts active
behaviors: groups judged as warm elicit active facilitation (i.e., help), whereas those judged as lacking warmth elicit active harm (i.e., attack).” 14
They also reported that “the competence dimension, being secondary (because it assesses others’ capability to carry out intentions), predicts passive
behaviors: groups judged as competent elicit passive facilitation (i.e., obligatory association, convenient cooperation), whereas those judged as lacking
competence elicit passive harm (i.e., neglect, ignoring).” 15
So the way the bias plays out may be very different, depending upon
which dimension elicits a reaction from us. Consider whether you are dealing
with somebody who is elderly, or has a physical disability, both types that
tested in the high warmth, low competence dimension of the study. You may
feel very warmly and loving toward them, but you may tend to treat them as
being less competent than they are in reality.
Deb Dagit, Diversity Consultant and
former Chief Diversity Officer
As a four-foot-tall woman who either walks with a cane or uses a
wheelchair, it is not unusual for people to express their surprise when
they meet me.
I often find people intending to make sincere compliments that can
be quite off-putting, like “When I first met you I was surprised to see
that you were handicapped, but now I don’t even think about you being
a person with special needs.” I would much prefer “person with a
disability,” which doesn’t identify me as my disability. Others say
things such as, “You must work for a really special company if they
would hire someone like you in such a visible role.” Some people
continue to ask when I will be getting well enough to walk again, rather
than be in my wheelchair.

If You Are Human, You Are Biased

13

Most people with disabilities consider their disability to be an important and valued aspect of their identity that does not need to be
overlooked or forgotten in order to make us more acceptable and competent.
I remember leading a workshop for a client many years ago in St. Louis.
We were conducting a three-day training in a hotel and had arranged to have
several wheelchairs available for the participants to use at various times as
they negotiated the hotel. Obviously we were not pretending that this was the
same as having a permanent disability, but we found that it could make a
great impact upon people to consciously see what it was like to negotiate
both the physical environment and being with people. One of the participants
took the wheelchair overnight, and called for room service for breakfast in
the morning. The participant reported that when the room service waiter
came with the food in the morning, he seemed visibly surprised to find
somebody with a wheelchair in a room that was not handicap accessible. He
proceeded to place the tray on the table, remove the chrome food cover, and
started to cut the participant’s food! The participant was stunned and asked
the waiter what he was doing. The waiter said he was only trying to be of
help. This example shows how we can feel very warmly toward people and
still demonstrate behavior that is patronizing and demonstrates a judgment of
less competence.
On the other hand, you may have enormous respect for someone’s competence, thinking them extremely capable, and yet just not like them very
much. This may result in a completely different kind of bias. You may not
choose them to be on a team you are putting together to work on a project, or
not invite them to lunches or other business gatherings, and in doing so affect
their ability to be successful.
HOW RATIONAL ARE WE?
These findings also are important to consider as we think about our true
orientation toward people versus the orientation that, especially in business
environments, we sometimes believe we take. We like to think we are rational, and that our emotions are secondary. This is not unusual in Western
cultures. We have a long history of valuing the rational over the emotional.
But really, how rational are we?
In the age of bifurcated media and social media streams that let us select
who and what we are exposed to, it is obvious that politic differences create
different “realities” in our experience of what is going on in the world around
us. But Yale University law professor Daniel Kahan, along with psychologists Ellen Peters from Ohio State University, Erica Dawson from Cornell

14

Chapter 1

University, and Paul Slovic from the University of Oregon, decided to explore whether, for example, our politics might affect our ability to do something we consider very “rational” indeed: math problems. 16 Kahan gave more
than one thousand participants in his study a tricky math problem to compute. In the first version, the question he posed involved the results of a
clinical study of skin cream. Fifty-nine percent of the participants got the
problem wrong.
Then he decided to add a more emotional component. He took the same
numbers and framed them as a question about the effectiveness of laws
against concealed handguns, a highly political and emotional issue. He and
his colleagues found that “conservative Republicans were much less likely to
correctly interpret data suggesting that a gun ban decreased crime in a city;
for liberal Democrats, the exact opposite was true. The people who were
normally best at mathematical reasoning, moreover, were the most susceptible to getting the politically charged question wrong.” 17
We are trained to think we can talk people out of their points of view if
we give them the right “evidence.” But what this study demonstrated was
that political biases actually distort our ability to reason logically. In the
battle between emotion and rationality, emotion usually wins!
In a similar study, Brendan Nyhan, assistant professor of government at
Dartmouth College, found that when voters are misinformed, factual information only makes them become more rigid in their point of view! Nyhan
found these instances of facts making people more rigid:
• People who thought weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq believed that misinformation even more strongly when they were shown a
news story correcting that belief.
• People who thought George W. Bush banned all stem cell research kept
thinking he did that even after they were shown an article saying that only
some federally funded stem cell work was stopped.
• People who said the economy was the most important issue to them, and
who disapproved of Barack Obama’s economic record, were shown a
graph of nonfarm employment over the prior year. It included a rising line
that indicated about one million jobs were added. They were asked whether the number of people with jobs had gone up, down, or stayed about the
same. Many, looking straight at the graph, said down. 18
All of this might suggest that the age-old adage is true: “Never let the facts
get in the way of a good story!”
A source of much of this thinking goes back almost twenty-five centuries
to Plato. In one of his dialogues, the Phaedrus, Plato explained the way
humans experienced the world through an allegory of a chariot. Describing

If You Are Human, You Are Biased

15

love as “divine madness,” Plato describes the charioteer driving a chariot
pulled by two winged horses:
First the charioteer of the human soul drives a pair, and secondly one of the
horses is noble and of noble breed, but the other quite the opposite in breed
and character. Therefore, in our case the driving is necessarily difficult and
troublesome.

In this allegory, the charioteer represents our rational intellect, the part of our
soul that must keep the horses, our passionate nature and our righteousness
(extreme positive emotions), and our more lustful negative emotions in
check. It is only when the charioteer is “in charge” that we can move forward
toward enlightenment.
For 2,500 years, we have worshipped at the altar of the rational. Think
about how embedded it is in our language. “Are you sure you’re being
rational about that? Aren’t you being too emotional?”
It turns out that we are far less “rational” then we are “rationalizing,” and
the lack of awareness of that may get in the way of our ability to think as
clearly as we might. The renowned neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio, discussed this in his book Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human
Brain.
In the book, Damasio described his encounter with a patient he called
“Elliott.” Elliott had a brain tumor removed that had caused ventromedial
frontal lobe damage. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is the part of the
prefrontal cortex that processes risk and fear. It plays a major role in managing our emotional responses and decision making. Elliott, who had been a
successful businessman and family man, was struggling. Despite the fact that
he still registered very high intelligence (his IQ was in the ninety-seventh
percentile), everything around him, his businesses, and his marriage, were
failing. One would think that somebody without the pull of emotions would
make very “rational” decisions. However, Elliott seemed to lack any motivation at all. Damasio wrote that “he was always controlled. Nowhere was
there a sense of his own suffering, even though he was the protagonist. I
never saw a tinge of emotion in my many hours of conversation with him: no
sadness, no impatience, no frustration.”
Damasio found that without access to his emotions, Elliott was incapable
of making even the simplest of decisions. Each small decision seemed to take
him forever. He took long periods of time to choose what to write with,
whether or not to make an appointment, or decide where to eat lunch. He
concluded that “Elliott emerged as a man with a normal intellect who was
unable to decide properly, especially when the decision involved personal or
social matters.”

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Chapter 1

Damasio described Elliott as an “uninvolved spectator” in his own life.
Once the emotional part of his brain had been disabled, he was virtually
unable to make any decisions. 19
We live with this inherent dichotomy between the rational decisions we
think we are supposed to be making, and the real impact of our unconscious
processing and our emotional reactions, which can remain under the surface,
unobserved and, often, discounted. We want to think of ourselves as good
people, but we still have these emotional impulses. This can create an enormous dissonance between what we think we see and evaluate and what’s
actually going on. In Freudian terms, the id, our instinctive impulses, react
and feel one way, but our superego, our inner controller and manager, tries to
keep them under control by burying them deep in our unconscious. We
know, for example, that we are “not supposed to be biased,” and so we
convince ourselves that we are not, even sometimes in the face of evidence to
the contrary.
In fact, one of the many remarkable contradictions we see in this research
is that intelligent people with high self-esteem may be the most likely to
develop blind spots about their biases. Philip Dodgson and Joanne Wood,
both psychologists at the University of Waterloo, found that people with high
self-esteem respond less to weaknesses than people with low self-esteem. As
a result they may be less likely to internalize negative thoughts or ideas about
themselves. Not only that, but intelligent people often can rationalize their
own bias as justified. The more sophisticated we are in coming up with
explanations for our opinions, the more we see them as truth! 20
In addition, the cultures we grow up in give us a particular set of standards and rules to live by, which inherently are defined by “not like them!”
guidelines. Our standards become the foundation of our inner “book of
rules,” and others appear to us as simply wrong. Because our identities are
formed around this ego identification, we see ourselves as “right” and the
“other” as “wrong” or “flawed” in some way.
There is nothing wrong with this process. It is inherent in every human
being, but it creates real mischief for us in understanding how we are responding to others because we are largely unaware of it. Let’s now look at
how the brain seems to make all of this happen.

Chapter Two

Thinking about Thinking

I’m entirely interested in people, and also other creatures and beings, but
especially in people, and I tend to read them by emotional field more than
anything. So I have a special interest in what they’re thinking and who they
are and who’s hiding behind those eyes and how did he get there, and what’s
the story, really? —Alice Walker

Imagine you are walking down the street one morning, perhaps going to
work. You walk past any number of people. And even though you are mostly
lost in thought, certain people get your attention. The guy in the blue suit
with the umbrella looks angry. The woman with the wire-rimmed glasses
looks friendly. This person looks wealthy, another one poor. This person
looks intelligent, that one, you’re not so sure. Or perhaps you walk into a
party alone. Who do you walk up to talk to, and why?
Check it out yourself the next time you are in a group of people. How
long does it take before you start evaluating, judging, and classifying them as
happy, sad, smart, dumb, attractive, unattractive, safe, dangerous? Do you
make a quick judgment about their job? And how thoughtful are you when
making these judgments? Our minds are filled with memories, conscious and
unconscious, that we access to figure out the circumstances we find ourselves
in.
In fact, this sort of thinking doesn’t apply only to people, but to virtually
anything we encounter. Stop for a moment and take a look around the room
or place you are sitting in right now. Allow your eyes to focus on any
inanimate object and see what memory comes up. Does the lamp remind you
of one that was at your grandmother’s house when you were growing up?
Does the fire alarm remind you of fire drills in school? Does a picture on the
wall remind you of one that was in a college dorm room? When was the last
time you thought about any of those things? As it is, these memories are
17

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Chapter 2

stored in our unconscious. We are not thinking about them at all until something, or someone, jogs them into consciousness.
And there is something else to notice. What feelings do these memories
bring up? Are they pleasant, happy, or warm ones? Or are they sad, upsetting, or even traumatic? Seeing those objects recalls both the memory and the
feelings associated with those objects.
Over the course of our lives, we collect millions of memories, which get
stored in both the conscious and unconscious parts of our brains. Some of
them are pretty obvious and dependable, but most drift into an amalgamation
of thoughts and feelings that are recessed in a sort of filing system in our
brains. Circumstances we encounter can trigger those memories, often in
ways that we’re not aware of in full. These memories also get stitched together into a fabric that makes up our view of the “real” world. But how “real” is
this world?
When I was young, we used to have “sock hops” after our junior high
school basketball games. And in those days, we really did dance in socks so
we wouldn’t mess up the gym floor! Given that there were virtually no
LGBTQ students who were “out,” the boys would invariably line up on one
side of the room and the girls on the other. It was almost always expected
that the boys would ask the girls to dance, and so at some point you were
expected to walk all the way across the gym floor, in front of all of your
friends, and ask a girl to dance. If she said no, you had to walk all the way
back, again, in front of all of your friends.
And on the whole walk back, what were you thinking? More often than
not, it was something like “I’ll never do that again!”
Flash forward twenty-five years. You are working for a company that is
having an annual conference. You are asked to call an important community
member to invite them to the event. You sit down at your desk and pick up
the phone, and all of a sudden you feel a wave of nervousness sweep through
you. The act of invitation has triggered a fear of rejection. It is almost like
somebody entered your internal jukebox, hit “D7,” and that song of fear
began to play. Did you choose to feel a fear of rejection at that moment? Or
did the fear of rejection simply “happen”? Could it have been that the name
of the woman you were calling reminded you somehow of the name of the
girl who rejected you at the dance, or any of a hundred similar connections?
These kinds of triggers are around us all of the time. A memory may be
triggered and we cannot say why it was triggered. I’m sure almost everybody
reading this has had an incident when you were walking somewhere, driving
a car or doing almost anything, and “out of nowhere” you start thinking about
something you haven’t thought about in a long time. Without our realizing it,
something has jogged that memory. It might have been something that
passed in our peripheral vision, or a smell or sound or bump in the road.
Memories are constantly being triggered within us.

Thinking about Thinking

19

Here is one example of a seemingly “random” memory trigger. I was
working out at the gym one morning and listening to my iPod. My iPod has
more than 24,000 songs on it and sometimes I just put it on “shuffle” and
songs will play at random. I might hear a song that I haven’t heard in a few
years. That was exactly what happened on this particular morning. A Neil
Young song that I like came on; in fact I even played it a second time. I
listened to eight or nine more songs and then showered and dressed and got
in my car. At the stop light, I had a thought about a health food store that was
a couple of miles down the road that my wife and I used to go to but that I
hadn’t been to in a good while. I decided to drive that way, not even remembering the store’s name. When I pulled into the parking lot, I saw the store,
which is named “Harvest Moon.” Which happens to be the same name as the
Neil Young song I played twice! Coincidence? Perhaps, but I don’t think so.
This is the way our minds work. Different things get linked together,
along with all of the memories and feelings associated with those things.
When we meet somebody and say, “There’s something about that person that
I like,” that person is probably stimulating an old memory of somebody or
something that was positive. If that memory link is to a negative stereotype
that we have been exposed to in our past, the same applies.
Over the course of the past couple of decades, we have experienced an
explosion in new research about the way our minds and brains work. The
ability to use technology in new ways has permitted us to not only to watch
the brain in action in a more robust fashion than ever before, but also has
allowed many more brains to be tested. This has helped us begin to understand the way we think in a much more acute way. And what we are seeing is
anything but “logical.”
As a diversity and human resources/management professional, my interest in this research is completely practical. How can we take what we have
learned from the mind and use it to better understand our relationships and
organizations, so that we can make more conscious decisions? What actually
changes our behavior? One thing that feeds our predisposition to act unconsciously is our tendency to rush ahead before we truly understand what we
are dealing with at that moment.
I like to use dieting as an example of behavior that is not always so well
thought out because it is such an obvious one that applies to so many people.
For years I struggled with my weight, fluctuating between gaining and losing
as much as forty pounds. Even when I was heavy, I knew exactly what to do:
eat less and exercise more. With the possible exception of a few people, that
formula is pretty dependable. It wasn’t until I looked behind the curtain, so to
speak, that I began to understand why I eat (in my case, eating is related to
stress and fatigue), that I actually had a chance to stick with a sensible weight
loss regimen.

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Chapter 2

To deal with an issue, we have to know what we are dealing with in the
first place. So, let’s talk about the real issues we deal with on a daily basis.
We have known for a long time that the world we see is shaped by our
experience. In the simplest of terms, two people wander up to a snake. One
says, “Cool! A snake!” The other immediately says (or feels), “Oh my God!
I’m going to die!” The snake is no different, but each person’s experience
with the snake is obviously very different. And the background through
which they see the snake shapes those experiences.
Throughout our lives, we are exposed to countless experiences, numerous
teachings, and also certain paradigms that we have been told are “true.” All
of this makes up an ideological structure, a kind of internal “book of rules”
through which we process the world we see. That book of rules can then both
consciously and unconsciously influence our behavior, and in turn, what we
experience. We develop a certain schema, which is a system through which
we organize and perceive things that we encounter.
We all have schema. I am a musician, having sung and played in a Rock
and Roll band for more than thirty years. My wife is a fantastic watercolorist.
We may be listening to a new song and she is thinking “great song!”, while
I’m listening to how the instruments play off each other, or the way the
voices harmonize. Then we go to an art gallery, and she looks at a painting
and begins to describe “the shadowing that they’re using, and the way they
combine the colors and use splatter effects . . . and so on” while I look and
say, “Pretty picture!”
Think of something similar that applies to you. Do you have a hobby or
something you are particularly fascinated with or that you enjoy doing?
Haven’t you noticed how easily you spot things related to that when they
occur around you?
Let me show you what I mean. Take a look at the picture on the following
page (figure 2.1). It was designed many years ago by Karl Dallenbach, one of
the early pioneers of experimental psychology and the editor of the American
Journal of Psychology for more than half of a century. See if you can make
out a discernible image.
Perhaps you saw something you recognize in the picture? Or maybe you
did not. Now turn the page and look at the next image with the picture drawn
in a way that is easier to see (figure 2.2).
Can you see the cow? Now go back and look at the original picture. It is
almost impossible to not see the cow, isn’t it? Something that was invisible
just minutes ago is now inescapably in your line of vision.
This experience is often referred to as perceptual organization, the ability
of the mind to organize information around a common unifying idea. Once
you have been shown that the cow is indeed there (by looking at the other
picture), you can’t not see it! Our brains are designed to organize around
particular ideas, concepts, or variables that are important to, or known by us.

Thinking about Thinking

21

Figure 2.1.

The same is true at work. Our professional skills focus our attention in
similar ways. I remember a number of years ago I had a visit from my wife’s
brother, who has a very successful house painting business. I was telling him
we were thinking of painting one of the rooms in the house and asked him a
simple question. His response involved many more questions, questions I
would never have thought to ask. What kind of paint? What kind of roller?
To which I responded, “A paint roller!” Then there was the matter of how
long to let the paint dry. How many coats? On and on. Knowing what questions to ask is often what actually gives us mastery. And that same body of
distinctions can frame what we see or miss, and in doing so, can dramatically
affect the nature of the way we see the world.
The more critical we perceive something to be part of our survival, the
more we will automatically refer back to the instinctive ways of seeing that
we have learned. My friend and colleague John Cruzat spent twenty years in

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Chapter 2

Figure 2.2.

the military, with most of those years spent in hostile environments. He can’t
help but scan rooftops, even as he walks down a perfectly safe street, because
his war experience trained him to do that, even though it makes no real sense
in the situation and environment he is in at present.
Still, when we are looking at those things that help shape our experiences
and perceptions, what things are we not seeing?
If the job that we have can so easily shape our perception, how can the
most fundamental identities that we live with throughout our lives, including
our race, gender, sexual orientation, age, and so on, not do as much?
In real time, being able to make quick determinations about the people we
encounter and the situations we are in is critical to our survival. It is built into
the fundamental ways our brains function. Social identification is especially
important because picking up social clues about the circumstances we are in
not only helps us be successful, but more importantly, it keeps us safe.
However, in real life, what we think we see may not be clearly happening
at all. Our perceptions, our memories and our social judgments are all constructed by our unconscious mind from the limited information that we interpret through the expectations we have, the context that we see the situation
in, and what we hope to get out of the situation.
So, what really takes place in our minds when we observe a person or
situation?
Often, our first mental reaction comes from the amygdala, the most primitive part of the brain, and, when looking at matters from an evolutionary
standpoint, the oldest part. There are two amygdalae in a normal human
brain, each located within the temporal lobes. The amygdalae are a key part
of our limbic system, which is a complex set of structures in the brain that

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control various important functions including emotion, long-term memory,
and behavior. The amygdalae play a primary role in processing our emotional reactions, and they also are involved