Charles McCabe of the San Francisco Chronicle once said; “Any clod can have the facts, but having opinions is an art.” As a scientist, you won’t be surprised to know I don’t agree and much prefer Albert Einstein who said that; “Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people are even incapable of forming such opinions.” Uncle Albert offers a rather a damning account of the opinions we often hold so dear, and together the quotes illustrate the divide often seen between the media and science. I also like another Uncle Albert quote that; “Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen” although I would argue that we go on seeing our opinions as improving common sense as we get older, but that we have probably just firmed upon and created new biases.
The idea that opinions are sculptured implicitly from our environment (with all of its biases) echoes my thoughts around the role of the unconscious in forming what we then think are conscious, rational thoughts. It is quite hard to consider, in a world where personal agency is so highly valued, that much of what we think and value is constructed by billions of ancient patterns within the neurons of our ancient brains. When we give an opinion, no matter how well thought out we may feel it is, we automatically employ and expose the ancient software which actually runs our brain. They are patterns our modern living still uses to create new heuristics for managing our complex lives and with it our personal people preferences (biases). To deny the role of the unconscious is to deny the majority of the true explanation for our behaviour.
Depending upon your out of work interests, I find that working with bias is a bit like being an English football fan, a political activist or a celeb watcher; everyone has an opinion and everybody thinks theirs is the right one. Not only that, everybody thinks you should give that opinion so they can then contradict or disagree with it. As soon as people find out that I work as a psychologist with personal biases they want my opinion on the latest news story, or more often want me to confirm their opinions on a particular social group as being particularly stupid, promiscuous, untrustworthy or work shy. They really don’t want me talk about how bias is formed and defended. They certainly don’t want to hear that we are all biased, because our bias blind spot finds that uncomfortable listening. This is certainly not the way to make polite dinner party conversations. We often have to agree to disagree, or at best they leave slightly bewildered that a discussion they thought was about confirming their views on immigration ended up looking at brainwaves and picking around amongst the pages of the Daily Mail for examples of unconscious bias triggers. I think it was Francis Jeffrey who said that; “there is nothing respecting which a man may be so long unconscious as of the extent and strength of his prejudices.” We really cannot see bias in ourselves.
I occasionally get invited to do media interviews around my work on bias. I say occasionally because the offer is soon retracted when I tell them I have no opinions to share. They don’t want the bare facts I have to hand, they want an opinion about the facts with a twist of an agenda or angle thrown in. That is their job and that is their world. But it isn’t mine. That is how a simple press release and radio interview talking about levels of unconscious bias towards non-dominant groups can quickly descend into a ‘compare and contrast’ process like some 1970’s ‘O’ level English literature essay. “So, you’re saying that more people are homophobic now than racist”? No, I didn’t say that, I said levels of implicit and unconscious bias towards Gay and Lesbian people in this study were more prevalent than the levels of unconscious bias toward Black people. They are both at levels where we need to do something quick and smart. I didn’t use the words homophobic or racist. I now never use words like racist and homophobic in describing people because it serves no purpose except to entrench attitudes I want to help people manage. In fact, I have no idea what ‘racist’ or ‘homophobic’ mean to the listening audience except the science tells me it creates the anxiety and anger which reduces our capacity to act in an unbiased way or manage our biases. I won’t be using those words or adding fuel to this already raging inferno of ill informed debate. Exit radio stage door left. No free station mug, no friendly smile and wave, no promise of a call should they need another ‘expert’ in the area. Just a look of disappointment that I didn’t play nicely enough to give them the ill thought through opinion they sought. It is tempting to comply, but to be frank I think there are enough half baked, ill considered opinions out there on bias, without me adding one more based on conjecture.
The fact we struggle to explain or justify our social opinions (we may think we can, but believe me, people are just being polite!) suggests we are opening an interesting window to our unconscious. Although we may rationalise our social opinions as conscious thought, in reality I believe that much of what we see as rational thinking is simply reconciling the outcome of our unconscious processing (or our pre-conscious to be more precise). As William James said; “ A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” We convince ourselves that our view of the world is THE view.
We are instinctively awash with opinion on our individual differences, but corporately we seem to speak as one; everyone is equal, everyone is lovely and valuable. How did we reach that miraculous consensus? Of course we didn’t. Fearful of the outcome of even having the ‘difference’ debate organisations batten down the hatches, produce policy after policy and forbid discussion about our differences except in uber controlled but toxic ‘awareness workshops’ which often make majority and minority groups feel awkward and guilty (and perhaps cry a bit to make the trainer feel valuable). With spectacularly little impact. For example, progress in improving the representation of women on FTSE boards has stalled in the last few years and any increase in the numbers of people from poorer and BaME backgrounds reaching the top universities has to be achieved through something akin to violent hand-to-hand combat across the media. Turkeys just don’t vote for Christmas. Of course the shop fronts have changed, a few new signs and a lick of paint, but behind the frontages the same crumbling buildings and streets are the reality; the supporting structures in society are largely the same. Having a pervasive corporate opinion gives us attractive shop fronts and avoids the cost of a major redevelopment project to change the structure.
US Attorney General Eric Holder said before the election of Obama that the US needed to end the taboo of talking about race, to have an open, honest debate and resolve to deal with the issues instead of ignoring them. This could be said about many of our individual differences in the workplace. This inability to have an informed debate about how we all differ and how we all see other groups and think others view our groups seems to me to be at the heart of dealing with some of the issues of bias at work and in wider society. It is most difficult at work because there is often the ‘right’ corporate opinion and dissenters to that risk career death by a thousand sharp in-takes of breath. And the research evidence is clear that bias suppression creates a rebound effect of making bias worse not better.
The challenge now is how to have that debate, how to understand and express our opinions, how to understand why we think and feel as we do. I like quotes, so here is one to finish from Bernard Baruch: “Only as you do know yourself can your brain serve you as a sharp and efficient tool. Know your own failings, passions, and prejudices so you can separate them from what you see.” Not a bad start?