Fifty years after King was assassinated, we review King's lesser known legacy and how it is used against activists today.
Diversity is now looked upon as a mainstream value in the United States. But research shows that for as much as we try to fight against them, we still carry unconscious biases that affect the decisions we make and the interactions we have with other people. Business coach, diversity consultant and author Howard Ross joins Kojo to explore the science behind those unconscious biases and whether there’s anything we can do about them.
- Howard Ross Author, "Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Lives" (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2014); Principal, Cook Ross
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIYou know, Howard Ross gets paid to give advice to businesses and workplaces across America about diversity. Turns out that he, like all of us, has unconscious biases ingrained so deeply that they're hard to turn off no matter how much training you have to do so. Not long ago, Howard was boarding a plane in Memphis when a bearded man with a Southern accent gave a bit of lip back to a gate agent. In an instant, Howard thought he had this angry Santa pegged, that he knew exactly who this person was and what he was all about.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut during the course of the flight, Howard Ross learned that the angry Santa he was so quick to judge was in fact a radiologist studying how our brains react to different stimuli. This rush to pigeonhole an airline passenger was, at the end of the day, a small mistake, but unconscious biases permeate our professional and personal universes, even though so many of us now accept diversity as a society value.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe question is, how do we train ourselves to recognize and even fight back against them so that we limit their influences on the decisions we make in our daily lives? Howard joins us in-studio, as usual. He's a business coach, diversity consultant, business coach. He's a principal at the firm Cook Ross, and he's the author of several books, the most recent of which is "Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Lives." Howard, good to see you again.
MR. HOWARD ROSSYou, too, Kojo. It's great to be back.
NNAMDIYou say you had this bearded man all figured out in one second, and you ended up keeping to yourselves, even though you were sitting in the same row, for most of the flight before you finally talked to each other and learned that not only did you have him wrong but that you actually would have been really interested in what he did for a living. Why was your experience with the many you called Angry Santa so instructive for you?
ROSSIt's just a reminded, Kojo, that this is what human beings do. It wasn't about me. It wasn't about him. It wasn't about you or anybody else. This is what human beings do. And this is exactly why we title the book "Everyday Bias," because, you know, we've created a particular way of thinking about bias in our culture, and I say we because I think those of us who are in the industry that does diversity work have really propagated this a little bit, that bias is a bad thing, and therefore we should try to drive bias out of our systems.
ROSSBut the only problem with that is that what we know, and when I say know I mean because we have exhaustive research now in the neurocognitive sciences, we can watch the brain at work using magnetic resonance imagery and things like that, we know that bias is a foundational way that human beings process the world. And it's as normal to human beings as breathing. And by demonizing it and saying that bias is inherently bad, we miss the point that bias also can be very helpful to us at times, it can be very necessary to us at times, and in fact it can help us survive at times.
ROSSAnd so rather than demonizing it, we want to see where it's being helpful and where unconsciously we're making some very poor decisions that can negatively impact people.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call if you'd like to join this conversation. Have you ever found yourself guilty of judging a person before you even realized you were doing it? What was it about that person that sparked your unconscious fires? "Everyday Bias" is the name of the book, "Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Lives." You can also send us email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. Could your rush to judgment in some ways have been about the environment that you were in? Airports don't exactly bring out the best behavior in a lot of people.
ROSSWell, I think it's a way -- look, I mean, I...
NNAMDIThe man was responding to a flight being delayed.
ROSSI tell that story in the book because I want people to know I'm not here wagging a finger at people. I'm just asking all to look at how do we do this. I mean, think about it this way Kojo. You know, we walk into a cocktail party or in a meeting, and we're the only person, you know, we're coming by ourselves, we don't know anybody there. What do we do as human beings? We scan the room, and we look for the people who look like the friendly person we want to sit next to or go up to talk to.
ROSSIt's a natural thing for human beings to do. We pick up these cues based on who knows what. We meet somebody when they come in for an interview for the first time, and the thought goes into our head, something about this person that I like, but I've only seen them now for five or 10 seconds. So it clearly can't be about them because I don't even know them yet. It's more, we would more appropriate say something about me likes them.
ROSSUsually what it means is they remind us of somebody. In this particular case, being in Memphis, Tennessee, see this old, white -- older white guy, you know, he's wearing...
ROSSOveralls and a flannel shirt. He's got a car...
ROSSCar magazine in his hand, and I had him pegged. You know, I mean, my mind went to it. I'm not saying it was right to do that. I'm just saying that's the way my mind worked. Now my first -- when I realized what I realized what had happened on the plane later was embarrassment and even a little guilt because what's wrong with me, I'm a diversity consultant, I should know better than this. But then you realize the guilt actually shuts you down. It actually contracts as opposed to saying oh, got to watch that one, got to be careful about that bias that's in my system.
ROSSAnd that's what we're trying to get people to see is that by making them demonized and by driving them underground, it actually causes more mischief with our minds than if we actually own them and then are responsible for how to manage them.
NNAMDIWell, you've made that point that unconscious biases are, in many ways, as normal as breathing. How so?
ROSSWell, if we think about the way the brain works, first of all, we know that if we break it down in very simple terms, you know, we've got the limbic system of the brain, which includes the amygdala, the hippocampus, the hypothalamus, the cingulate gyrus, and basically we spot something, and immediately what the brain does when we see it is the amygdala, which scans, picks something up, it goes to the hippocampus, which is, oh, that reminds me of, and then the hypothalamus, which is sort of the air traffic control system of the brain, sends a signal what do about that, and the cingulate gyrus sends it out to the body.
ROSSSo if we're driving in our car, for example, on our way to work, and the taillights come on in the car in front of us, then it stops short, we don't stop to say let me think, what's the best thing to do in a situation like this because if we did we'd end up in the backseat of the car. That all happens very, very rapidly. And we know now that that's the first response that human beings have. We do that with people, too. I spot somebody, friendly, not friendly, smart, not smart, interesting, not interesting, safe, not safe. All of this is a human danger detector, if you will.
ROSSIt probably goes back to 10s of thousands of years ago, when we were living in jungles and caves, and you saw a group of people around the water hole, and you had to decide instantly whether it was them or us. So we have this fundamental way of operating, and we can see in babies that we begin to identify this, and babies, you know, two, three months old that they make these distinctions between them and us.
ROSSThen and only then, afterwards, and the reason I say this definitively is because with functional magnetic resonating imagery, you can see which part of the brain activates first, the brain then goes to the prefrontal cortex area, where we do more of what we consider our rational or thoughtful thinking and then decides, okay, what do I do with that. That's where we can have more, you know, careful thinking. But what we know how is that we're far more rationalizing than we are rational as human beings. So what usually happens is once I have that initial feeling person is unsafe, I then rationalize why I see them as unsafe.
ROSSAnd that's the exact opposite of what most people think they do. Most of us think what we do is we evaluate the person and then judge them, but actually we usually judge them and then explain why we feel the way we do.
NNAMDIYour Santa who turned out to be a Ph.D., in the end, is about...
ROSSAn MD, actually.
NNAMDIAn MD, oh, he's a medical doctor.
NNAMDIIn the end is what ended up being a harmless airport interaction, but where are the places where we see unconscious biases having a more significant impact on our culture?
ROSSWell, unfortunately we're seeing them every day. We saw them happen in Ferguson, Missouri. We saw them happen with Trayvon Martin. We saw them happen -- we see them happen when somebody comes in to our office, and they occur for us as not as professional because they have a particular hairstyle or piercings or tattoos. We see them when we listen to younger people in businesses, and we don't give enough credibility to their ideas or suggestions because, you know, we just see them as too young, and therefore we don't listen as carefully.
ROSSAnd we actually have not only research but also experiments we do with people in our training where we can actually show people that you listen to people differently. So it happens virtually in every aspect of life. It happens with doctors, where doctors listen to the credibility of patients differently and prescribe patients differently because of assumptions they make. For example when LGBT patients come in doctors, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender patients come in to doctors, doctors have a tendency to listen to their complaints through their sexuality and often therefore can either misdiagnose or miss a problem.
ROSSAnd none of these things happen necessarily because anybody intends to, and that's the important thing. Even the most egregious of these things can happen without people even realizing that their mind is being seized by these instant associations that they make or we make.
NNAMDIOur guest is Howard Ross. He's a business coach and diversity consultant, principal at the firm Cook Ross, author of several books, the most latest -- the latest is "Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Lives." Have you ever judged someone in a way that forced you to consider whether you have biases you're not proud of? What do you now, what do you do now to confront those biases, if you do anything at all? Give us a call, 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIHoward, let's take a look at an example from the business world. Google has said recently that it's unhappy with the diversity or the lack thereof in its workforce. It published a report in May after coming under pressure from civil rights leaders. How would you describe the kind of biases Google and other tech companies are trying to fight back against here?
ROSSWell, it's funny, Kojo, I was at Google two weeks ago today, and we did talks at Google on the book, which will be coming in probably November, they'll post it online. And so I got a chance to tour the campus and talk to those folks. We've also had some folks from Google at some of our unconscious bias learning labs, which we do. We conduct three-day programs for people and organizations.
ROSSSo this is a great example. You know, the folks at Google, great people, and they really do want people to come more broadly into the organization. And so what they're doing now is they're exploring what stops us from getting the people we want to be here. Now some of this is industry related. We know it's bigger than any one company. We know that the STEM industries, science, technology, engineering, mathematics industries, tend to struggle around gender issues because women in STEM is a big issue.
ROSSBut there are structural issues. There are interpersonal issues. So for example if, you know, how are you seen in the marketplace, who is seen in schools as the kind of person you try to recruit, how do you interact with different people in different circumstances. And the funny thing is, even as we're talking about this, and all across Silicon Valley they're talking about this, HBO has this new "Silicon Valley" show that's on, you know, it's a new sitcom that's on. And everybody in Silicon Valley is talking about how do we get more women in.
ROSSYou know, we're also talking to LinkedIn and Groupon on all these different people, well Groupon's not based in Silicon Valley, but nonetheless one of those companies. HBO puts on a show, and if you look at the cover shot of the show, all five of the characters represented are men, even as they're all talking about this.
ROSSSo it is a great example. You know, my guess is that that was a blind spot on somebody's part. And the cultures begin to be regenerating, self-regenerating, in that because it's an all-male culture, women are less inclined to think they can be successful there, and women also internalize some of this themselves because part of the process of bias is that we internalize biases around people like us, and that creates what a lot of people are now calling for women the competence gap, the tendency to not go for jobs where it's a little bit of a stretch, where a man might go for those same jobs.
NNAMDIWhat do you make of the tech companies' efforts so far to address these biases?
ROSSWell, I know mostly about Google because I've spent time there, and I have to say that what they've done in the last year is incredibly impressive. You know, they've run something like 23,000 people through unconscious bias education work. They're actively looking at their systems and structures. They've taken it on with a tremendous amount of aggression to tackle this problem, and they're not going to see the results for a while because you don't see the results for something like this immediately. It takes some time for it to play out.
ROSSBut I think a lot of them are following the lead. Google was very bold in putting it right out there in the marketplace what their numbers were, which is usually something that people are afraid to do. And I think that a lot of companies have now fallen in line and followed that lead and said yeah, we have an issue, too, and we have an issue, too.
ROSSSome subtle things, though, that are really interesting, one thing in particular, Laszlo Bock, who is the chief people officer at Google, talks about is they have a self-nominating process for promotions. And so anybody can nominate themselves to be potentially considered for a promotion. And they began to notice that far fewer women were nominating themselves than men. So they discovered in their research the point that I just made a few minutes ago, which is that women tend to be more hesitant to put themselves forward for promotions for things like this.
ROSSSo all they did was -- it's not all they did. They've done a number of things, but what they did was they then sent out with the promotion announcement a note that said, by the way, you should know that research shows that women have a tendency to not put themselves up for things as much as men do. You know, please keep that in mind.
ROSSAnd just that, just letting people know that that dynamic is there began to shift that dynamic because women see that and say, well, wait a second. Why are we doing that, you know. And men were more open to encouraging women to put their names up and that sort of thing.
NNAMDILet's take it up a notch. A study at Yale a few years ago noted that these biases are a lot more pervasive than a lot of people would like to think. This research showed that professors were not only less likely to offer women mentoring on the job. They also showed that women made lower salaries. That female professors were just as biased against women as their male colleagues and that didn't make a difference. Biology professors were just as biased as physics professors. How did you react to this type of (unintelligible) ?
ROSSWell yeah, Jo Handelsman is a professor at Yale who conducted that study. And what she did she is gave a resume for a lab assistant's position to professors. And the resumes were exactly identical except for one thing. And that was some had been named John on them and some had been named Jennifer. As you said, John was rated 4 points on a 7-point scale whereas Jennifer 3.3. John was offered on average $4,000 more per year in salary, more likely to be chosen. And, as you said, the results of the female professors who were virtually identical to the male professors.
ROSSNow, why would that happen? Well, the reason is because we're all exposed to the same stereotypes, you know. Men and women are exposed to the same public stereotypes. The people we see on TV, the people we see in the news, the people who we see interviewed on programs like "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" generally tend to be -- tend to represent the dominant group. And so that sends a message out to who is supposed to be in this particular job.
ROSSNow, if that was a thoughtful -- if we said to ourselves, well, who's supposed to be in this job and then we said, I think men are, then we'd say, wait a minutes, that's silly, that would be one thing. But it's not really a thoughtfully -- it's an association.
ROSSSo when somebody says -- it's like the story, Kojo, that I'm sure you've heard about a guy who's in an airplane crash with his son and he dies. And the son is rushed to the hospital. And the surgeon comes and is about to operate on the son and looks down and says, I can't operate on this child. This is my son. And everybody's perplexed by that. And the old answer is that the big punch line used to be, it's the child's mother. But the new punch line is, it's his other gay father. So that's, you know -- but the point is, we still make those kinds of quick associations.
ROSSNow, it can be -- when it's a joke it's ha-ha. But when at the moment I'm interviewing somebody, this person just looks and feels more like what I had in mind, and I don't even know that I have that thought, that changes the way I listen to the person in the interview, it changes how rigorously I ask the questions and it changes the possibility I see for that person in the job.
NNAMDILet's jump to what's at the top of the news. What does unconscious bias have to do with our fear of Ebola?
ROSSWell, there are a number of things. I mean, first of all, well, unconscious bias with Ebola weaves into ignorance because of course people have a very limited information first of all. Some people see Africa as one country, as you and I were just talking about. It's 57 countries that we see as one country. And so anybody who has anything to do with Africa -- I just came back -- as you know, came back last night from India and I had people say to me, are you -- you know, were you stopped for Ebola? I said, why would I be stopped for Ebola? There's no Ebola in India.
ROSSNonetheless, you know, that's sort of the way we think. So what ends up happening is it feeds into all of our preconceptions. Now, where Africa is concerned, we know of course that many people have negative biases about Africa that has been fed by stereotypes that have been, you know, introduced into our culture for years about the quote "dark continent" and the backwards people there. And most people think that everybody in Africa is, you know, somebody in the jungle and the like, that medical care in Africa is witch doctors or things like this.
ROSSAnd so when you hear about something -- when people hear about this it triggers that otherness. And if we're not careful it won't be long before anybody who's black will be associated as more of a danger with Ebola or anybody who has an accent like yours or anybody who has a name that has any African base to it or anything like this. And this is the way these associations work. The more frightening the circumstance is, and Ebola is definitely frightening, the more we're likely to be triggered by that quick limbic system. In fact, Daniel Goleman called it an amygdala hijacking. Our brain gets taken over by that fear.
NNAMDIWell, a lighter touch on unconscious bias, you have just returned, as you mentioned, from India. I am sure the venue said that a lot of people said to themselves, sure we have problems with diversity here but we're a country of immigrants. Why would India have any problems with diversity? I mean, those billion or more people there are all, well, Indian.
ROSSThat's right. And we always see people from outside of the group as sort of the same. It's just like in our culture. You know, in our culture, you know, white people see all black people the same, all Latinos the same, you know. And they may see all white people the same, you know or, you know, that sort of a thing.
ROSSYeah, I mean, India, look, we -- you mentioned before that we work all over the country. We actually work all over the world. You know, we're doing a lot of global work now and other countries are dealing with the same challenges in a global work market. You've got large numbers of women who are coming into the workforce. India is, of course, an incredibly multicultural country. It was really cobbled together more by the British than anything else.
ROSSAnd so people from South India are very different. They've got, of course, the background historically and spiritually the caste system which has created huge differentials in their culture in terms of who's considered to be the right kind of person to live and work with. In our case we were working with Tata Communications, which is a large multinational corporation, so they draw people from all over the world. So they have the same issues that everybody else does in terms of how do we get the best out of our people?
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we will be continuing with our fall membership campaign. But if you have called, stay on the line because we will be resuming our conversation with Howard Ross. His latest book is called "Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Life (sic) ."
NNAMDIThere will be a kickoff for this book on October 29 at the Human Rights Campaign office at 1640 Rhode Island Avenue. And that's October 29 from 5:30 to 8:00 they'll be kicking off Howard's new book "Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Lives." You can RSVP at 301-565-4035. That's 301-565-4035. When we come back we'll be telling you more about another number that you can call, so stay with us. I'll be right back.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Howard Ross, business coach, diversity consultant, principal at the firm Cook Ross, author of several books, the most recent of which is "Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Lives." We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. To what degree is the professional universe that you work in, in your view, shaped by unconscious bias? Have you ever found yourself more willing to meet with someone for coffee or replay to an email based on what might be unconscious bias? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Here is Tish in Arlington, Va. Tish, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TISHHi. I was wondering if you have given much thought or spent any time looking at the role that unconscious bias plays in the achievement gap between our white students and nonwhite students.
NNAMDIFascinating question, Howard.
ROSSYeah, it's a great question, Tish. And, you know, one of the things that we know is that there are two levels at that place. There's the level of the student and then there's the level of the person who's working with that student, that we know that there's a certain assumption that teachers make about student performance based on expectations. And that leads to a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy, you know, sometimes called the Pygmalion effect where certain students are seen as having tremendous potential and they're interacted with differently. And that shows up in their results.
ROSSThere are studies done as far back as into the '60s and '70s where people took students and gave teachers who they were working with different resumes or -- what's it called -- you know, the students' records. And when they gave the students' records as, you know, A students, the teachers interacted with them differently and they performed at that level. When they gave the students' records as low performing students, they actually lowered their performance in those classes.
ROSSNow we don't do those kinds of studies anymore because we realize that -- or psychologists don't do them because they realize that that can have a negative impact on the students. So the one level is how does the teacher interact with the student? How does the school interact with the student?
ROSSWe also know, for example, that when people study the -- what's called sometimes the Cradle to Prison Pipeline, that term Marian Wright Edelman at the Children's Defense Fund coined for what happens with particularly young black men when they end up being incarcerated far more, is that one of the big trigger points for that is something that happens in the 10- through 13-year-old age span where when most students get into trouble they get detention. But when black male students get into trouble, they tend to get suspended more often. It puts them out on the street and therefore they hang -- you know, they begin to hang out with kids who have also been suspended or are not going to school.
ROSSSo that's one element of it. And then the second part is a phenomenon that's been identified as stereotype threat. It's a term that Claude Steele, who's now over at U. C. Berkeley, he's a provost at U. C. Berkeley, coined, which is the internalization of these dynamics.
ROSSSo Steele did one study, for example, where he gave African American students -- before they took the SAT test, they simply filled out one additional block which asked their race. And when the students filled in race, their average scores dropped over 100 points on the SAT. That people internalize -- much as I was just talking about before about woman, internalize these biases and begin to think of themselves as not as capable, not as accepted, not as belonging in that environment. And that also can have a tremendous impact on performance. So it's obviously a very complex question and I don't want to claim to have a simple answer to it but it very much lives in the domain we're talking about.
NNAMDIHere's Gerald in Richmond, Va. Gerald, your turn.
GERALDHi there. Bear with me because my thoughts are all over the map regarding the conversation. And basically, I'm a 54-year-old -- who has dark skin. And I am constantly aggravated by the feeling that I'm intimidating people just by my presence ...
NNAMDIHow do people's reaction to you cause you to feel that way?
GERALDWell, I go through a quiet seething when I feel that -- for example, there's a park that I visit on a regular basis over the past 20 years. But not a day goes by when I visit that park where there are people who, by their body behavior or their lack of wanting to look at me (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDIPeople are not very friendly to you in that park.
GERALDThey don't appreciate my presence. I feel it. I feel it. And I've gotten to the point where I think I’m going to print up a shirt that says, the park is for everyone.
NNAMDIWell, it's funny that you would mention that because obviously that's something he picks up from people he sees in the park. But I'm wondering to what extend that can fuel a certain level of, if you will, paranoia.
ROSSWell, there is both to it but I do think first of all, Gerald, that you're not talking about something that's personal to you. And I'm sure you know that, that it's something that black men experience in this culture. And frankly the darker your skin the more that's the case. The bigger you are the more that's the case. And we know that there's absolutely research that shows this is true. I mean, there's one study that was done at the University of Chicago -- I think it was the University -- but somewhere -- one of the schools in Chicago created this online experience where they flashed pictures of people. Some of the people are holding a wallet and some of them are holding a gun. And the person takes this experience has to press a button to determine whether you would shoot them or whether you wouldn't or how you would react to them.
ROSSAnd they found that there was absolutely a differential, that when the person shown in the picture holding either the gun or the wallet was a black man, people overwhelmingly assumed that they were holding the gun. So this -- that's just one example. But there are dozens of studies that show the same thing, that there is a fear of black men that's out there in the culture. And it's, of course, reinforced by the fact that we see more black criminals depicted on TV. We are scarier when they are depicted. There is an otherness that gets created in the mind. And we know that, at a very young age, we determine between us and them.
ROSSAnd Kojo, you made, during the pitch a minute ago, the funding pitch, you were talking about President Obama. And we know that, for example, when we look at people's reactions of President Obama and how quickly people are to talk about taking back America. And about -- I just heard Phyllis Schlafly say the other day that Obama was bringing Ebola to America because he wanted it to be more like Africa. I mean, how insane is that? You know, completely insane. And so that's all part of the puzzle.
ROSSBut the other piece of it that you're talking about, Kojo, is something that can also happen, which is, if somebody has an experience like you're having, Gerald, it's natural for you, when you walk into the park, of course, to be looking for how people are going to be looking at you. And I think anybody would have that experience. If you've had people react to them the way you've described, you tend to be sensitive towards that. And one of the things, I think, that most people don't understand is the price that people pay when they have people fearing them for no reason -- that it occurs almost like an attack on you, in the way you've described it.
ROSSThat, you know, when somebody's afraid of you and you haven't done anything wrong, it feels like, you know, you're being violated in some way. And so it shows up in a relationship both ways. And if we take that exact circumstance and look what happened in Ferguson, Mo., we can see it.
ROSSThank you very much for your call, Gerald. We move on to James in Bethesda, Md. James, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JAMESHi, thank you. This is a fascinating topic for me. And one area that I find particularly appropriate at this time is considering the biases that seem to come out with elections. And I was wondering whether training in critical thinking might be a way of helping people get past their irrationality. And I don't know whether it could be done as part of the education system or if it's done later in college or wherever. But is that something that might have an effect?
NNAMDII'm glad you raised that question. And if you don't mind, James -- because I know that Howard is able to handle more than one thing at a time -- I'm going to broaden the question a little bit. Because, by definition, unconscious biases are things we don't always recognize in ourselves. But you say it's possible to start looking for and identifying those things we do and those behaviors we engage in. Where do we start and I guess what role does critical thinking play in it?
ROSSYeah, absolutely. What James -- it's a great question. And actually one section of the new book talks specifically about how unconscious bias plays out in our political structure, because they're -- we have a whole bunch of research now that shows that we don't decide really critically about who we're going to vote for. Most people don't. Obviously, I'm not talking about every single person. Most of us don't decide -- most of us decide immediately, as soon as somebody is defined by our party or our way of thinking, which information we're going to choose to listen to. And it get's fed, particularly nowadays, because so many of us have assorted media input.
ROSSSo, we, you know, we listen to or watch MSNBC or Fox News, for example, and we get different news. Not just different interpretation of the news, but actually different news. We have a Facebook feed in which we get from our friends different stories they send to us or a certain blogger we read. And so more than ever before, our news is being filtered through a funnel. And so the result of it is, for example, when the health care bill was being debated back in 2009, some researchers sent out information to people with a synopsis of the Democratic and the Republican reaction to health care, except they switched the names on top. And 75 percent of people chose something they didn't believe in because it had their party name on it.
ROSSSo we react to those things very uncritically and not much thinking. So, Kojo, the first step in this process of being able to be more thoughtful is to accept and understand that we have these biases. That we don't have to be afraid of them. We don't have to feel guilty about them but more just to take responsibility for them. The metaphor I use often is it's like stepping on the clutch of a standard transmission automobile. When you step on the clutch, the motor doesn't stop running. It simply stops driving the car. And similarly, when we have a bias and we observe it, we say, "Wow, I have a bias going on right now."
ROSSIf I, for example, on that airplane had said to myself, "Wow, I'm pegging this guy as, you know, a redneck from the South," or something like that. I had no idea that he's that, but I notice that my mind is making that association. At that moment, I have a choice. And then when I have this choice to move that bias aside -- it keeps running, like when the clutch is stepped on -- but now I can interact with him in a different place. And so, similarly, where James is -- what James is saying about, I think, as political creatures, we can do the same. I know, after I did this research, it changed the way I watched the news. I now flip between news channels when a big story is up so that I can get a different sense of perspective from each.
ROSSI'm not saying that I still don't have a political point of view, but I've learned to see it as a point of view rather than the truth far more than I ever did before.
NNAMDIThank you so much for your call. Why is slowing down decision making so important? And moreover, how do we even do that?
ROSSWell, it's important because the fast brain, what we talked about before, what Daniel Kahneman calls the fast brain, is where most of stereotypes and assumptions live, when we make a very quick association, see something and label it, without even realizing we're labeling it. It just occurs as that thing. When we're processing at that speed, we have very little premotor cortex functioning -- very little of the thoughtful brain functioning. When we slow ourselves down, when we consciously say to ourselves, "All right, let me slow down for a minute and thing about this." In order to have that very thought, "Let me slow myself down," I have to move to the prefrontal cortex.
ROSSThat's the part of the brain that requires me -- that it's required for me to have metacognition, to watch the way I think. At that moment, we can have more of that functioning to process the different possibilities that are there in that circumstance. Now, there are a number of ways you can do that. One is by, as I said before, "Oh, I see that's a bias. Let me slow down." Another is by using various kinds of mindfulness techniques. So breathing, for example, a little bit more deeply. If you encounter somebody and you notice you're being triggered by that person, to just consciously focus on your breath for a moment. And I don't mean having to deep-breath, hyperventilate. I mean just notice your breath for a minute.
ROSSBecause noticing your breath, once again, brings you to your prefrontal cortex area. Anything that causes us to come to our prefrontal area will, by the very nature of doing that, give us more opportunity to make thoughtful decisions.
NNAMDII listen to you talking and it's almost like listening to a neuroscientist these days. How has our understanding of these biases changed over time? What do we now know about the brain, how this part of the brain works, that we didn't, say, 40 years ago?
ROSSWell, this is -- we're going through just a historic period of understanding our brains and our minds. Most people know we're learned more about the mind in the last 20 years -- especially since the advent of functional magnetic resonance imagery -- than we've ever known before. I think we're probably going to look back at this time in history the way we looked back at the period after Galileo invented the telescope, where we learned more about the universe than we'd ever known before. And it gives an opportunity to actually watch the mind work and see which functions that the mind trigger.
ROSSNow, you know, one of the things that's really important, too, Kojo, for us to say here, is that the fact that one person feels themselves to be the victim of these biases -- so we'll use Gerald as an example, you know, because he talked about the impact on him so personally. You know, the fact that Gerald, for example, sees himself as the victim of bias around race and gender, in his place, being a black man, doesn't mean, for example, that he's any less susceptible to biases towards other people about other issues, you know -- or even those same issues.
ROSSAnd the same is true for me or you or anybody else. I mean, I'm just using Gerald because he called in. But...
ROSS...that we all are doing this all the time. And if we really get that, that can be a huge opening for us to talk about these issues in a new way. Let's look at Ferguson, Mo., for example.
ROSSThere were two systems of bias going on in that place. Now, I have an opinion about -- just like everybody else does -- about what might have happened there. Michael Brown approached Darren Wilson, the police officer. And Darren Wilson had some reaction. And, who knows? You know, there's now a question of whether or not he was actually in the car -- Michael Brown actually went into the car -- I saw the Grand Jury report came out yesterday, as you know -- or whether, you know, or what happened there. But the point is, there was undoubtedly a reaction on both parts.
ROSSAnd that is, that the officer saw this tall, this big, African-American young man, had some kind of instinctive reaction. And Michael Brown undoubtedly saw the officer -- saw a white police officer, based on the history of the experience of the police in that community, and also had a reaction. And whatever happened in the interaction with those two people, both of those triggers were bouncing off each other. This was not thoughtful behavior probably on either one of their parts. Now, I'm not in any way, by the way, excusing the responsibility for what happened there. But I'm just saying we have to understand these are complex systems.
ROSSWhen most of us heard that story, and I include myself in this -- young black man shot by white cop on street in Ferguson, Mo. -- we immediately jumped to the conclusion, which side are we on in this conversation?
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid --I'm afraid that's all the time we have.
ROSSOh, my goodness.
NNAMDIYou've set me off on another thought pattern that can go on for another hour. So you'll have to discuss this more when you come back. Howard Ross, he's a business coach and diversity consultant, principal at the firm, Cook Ross, author of several books, the most recent of which and which we've been talking about today is, "Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Lives." Howard, thank you so much for joining us.
ROSSKojo, a pleasure as always.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, it's to remind you that it's the third day of our fall membership campaign. But thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
While there are hundreds of streets named for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. around the country and the region, they are often in economically depressed and racially segregated neighborhoods. We explore Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue in the District, which is about to undergo major development.
Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld and Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett join us in studio.
D.C. Council unanimously passed a plan to publicly finance political campaigns. What does it offer district residents?