By Brian Heyward
“During a hot afternoon in the living room of an old Victorian mansion, the 7-foot window is open and the curtains are blowing in the breeze generated by the thunderstorm that just passed through the area. On the floor are the bodies of Bill and Mary. They are surrounded by puddles of water and broken glass. Neither Bill nor Mary have any clothes on. How did they die?”
If you came up with a theory of any kind, then you have used deductions based on the natural slant you have or preferences fueled by your past or lived experiences. This is Bias.
Bias can stem from various sources, such as personal history, cultural impact, social stereotypes, and cognitive shortcuts our brains employ for swift information processing—often without our conscious awareness. Interestingly, individuals may not necessarily agree with the biases they harbor. Past experiences play a crucial role in bias development, which, fundamentally, are mental shortcuts. Bias, neither inherently good nor bad, manifests in conscious and unconscious forms.
Conscious bias, also called explicit bias, involves intentional mental shortcuts shaping daily speech and actions. When coupled with negative intent, conscious bias may lead to overt acts of violence and discrimination. In contrast, unconscious bias, termed implicit bias or inherent association, operates outside of awareness, with individuals often unable to explain their inclinations or preferences, making it a manifestation of unseen influences.
Personal Note: I attended a Sunday School class and the teacher was using common misinterpretations from the book of Titus to address wrongful validations for the separation of people based on external demographics like race. In the lesson, he talked about how the character was the determination of association in scripture. I remember him asking the all-white (sans myself) class, “Who felt comfortable worshiping with me each Sunday?” because I was Black (side note: I was the fill-in worship leader at that church). When the teacher asked whether the folks would prefer their daughter bring home a boyfriend of another race or a boyfriend who dealt drugs, one brave soul stood up. He said that he knew it was wrong and had come to learn so much since knowing me and other People of Color, but he didn’t feel right about his daughter bringing home a Black or Mexican boyfriend because they were taught that the races don’t mix. Whether this guy realized it or not, he was describing bias at its core. He knew it was wrong based on the knowledge he had gained, but he both consciously and unconsciously leaned in a certain direction that he didn’t agree with based on his upbringing.
Biases shape our interpretation of experiences and influence what we accept as truth or opinion, as per the Merriam-Webster definition of belief. These beliefs often stem from biased filters, which are preferences developed through various experiences. To expedite the processing of experiences, biases act as shortcuts to form beliefs. Once beliefs solidify, assumptions naturally follow—determinations accepted as true without the need for new experiences due to existing beliefs.
According to Rokeach, beliefs consist of three components: cognitive, affective, and behavioral. The cognitive component pertains to correctness or favorability, the affective component deals with associated emotions, and the behavioral component involves actions based on the belief. Rokeach posited that core beliefs are static and resistant to change, while peripheral beliefs, linked to interactions and experiences with others, are more adaptable due to relational dynamics. Beliefs can change and sometimes will change as we experience new things.
Beliefs give rise to assumptions, leading to decisions, also known as behaviors—tangible actions toward others. Oxford defines behavior as the visible response to a stimulus. Behaviors, connected to beliefs, assumptions, experiences, and the bias they generate, form a cyclical, amoral loop shaping subsequent experiences for individuals and others.
In considering this cycle, neutrality is emphasized; it just is. Individuals, groups, or society decide through the lenses of their lives. To illustrate, take a bias, a belief, or behavior and identify five perspectives or lenses. These lenses represent how one sees the world based on relationships like sister or daughter, interests such as electrician or skateboarder, or identities like mom, dad, male, female, Black, or White. Examining the bias/belief/behavior through each lens allows for understanding diverse outcomes shaped by these perspectives.
Navigating Within Ourselves and Others
Given our understanding of how experiences influence behaviors, we possess the choice and capacity to not only alter our behaviors but also cultivate awareness of bias and challenge beliefs. Let’s delve into a process for navigating and, if necessary, changing biases, beliefs, and behaviors within ourselves and among those we coach or collaborate with.
Introspection, defined as the reflective examination of one’s thoughts and feelings, involves activities that prompt inward reflection. An example is the Implicit Association Test (IAT), consisting of questions to reveal existing biases and propose strategies for mitigation. Developed by Project Implicit at Harvard University, it spans 18 areas including age, sexual orientation, race, disability, and weight. Introspective activities aim to unveil biases and their connected beliefs, whether initially apparent or not.
Another introspective tool is the Accidental Diminisher Test, crafted by Liz Wiseman, identifying behaviors unintentionally diminishing others’ intelligence. This tool unveils behaviors which negatively influence outcomes when those behaviors are intended to empower others in their processes. These activities center on bringing to light the views and actions so they can be understood and mitigated if necessary.
Once a bias, belief, or behavior has been unearthed, the exposure/perspective strategy asks an individual to open themselves to the viewpoint of the person or group who is at the center of their belief. One activity to take in the perspective of another person or group is Structured Academic Controversy. This activity doesn’t ask a person to defend a viewpoint. Instead, it asks a person to research a viewpoint, then switch research with someone who has an opposing viewpoint to better understand their view. Once the person has become versed in both viewpoints, this exposure activity opens a person to making a more informed view about an issue, a person, or a group. Instructional Coaching expert Joellen Killion shares that beliefs affect behaviors and experiences affect beliefs. If we want to affect behavior, it is important to continually introduce new experiences. This is the process behind the exposure/perspective-taking strategy.
Individuation emphasizes assessing individual traits rather than categorizing by demographics like class, sex, age, or ability. The aim is to foster connections through shared interests rather than accentuating differences. The 10 Common Things activity encourages identifying shared aspects without restrictions and delving into individual stories related to those commonalities.
What Shall We Say, Then?
Considering the interconnection of bias, belief, and behavior, how do we articulate our awareness of relating to the world and others? Employing the process of introspection, exposure/perspective taking, and individuation allows us to question and challenge biases, beliefs, and behaviors, fostering critical thinking and more informed decision making. Continuing to scrutinize our beliefs along with their bias and the roots of our behaviors enables ongoing navigation of how experiences shape both ourselves and the world around us.
By the way, Bill and Mary are fish!
The American Consortium for Equity in Education, publisher of the "Equity & Access" journal, celebrates and connects the educators, associations, community partners and industry leaders who are working to solve problems and create a more equitable environment for historically underserved pre K-12 students throughout the United States.