How do we deal with our unconscious bias? – with End of Bias author Jessica Nordell

How do we deal with our unconscious bias? – with End of Bias author Jessica Nordell

by Suswati Basu
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Understanding and addressing biases you may possess are important so you can be aware of how you treat and interact with others, both consciously and subconsciously. The Implicit Association Test is often used to measure implicit bias in individuals.

But can we actually see our own unconscious bias?

Thanks to the following guest for participating:

Jessica Nordell is a science and culture journalist whose writing has appeared in the Atlantic, the New York Times, the New Republic, and many other publications. A former writer and radio producer for American Public Media, she graduated from Harvard University and the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The End of Bias: A Beginning is her first book.

Naiyer Qureshi, a NeuroCoach who is a neuroscience-based life coach, she can be found @naiyer_qureshi on Twitter.

Here are some of the resources from the show:

An inspiring guide from Dolly Chugh, an award-winning social psychologist at the New York University Stern School of Business, on how to confront difficult issues including sexism, racism, inequality, and injustice so that you can make the world (and yourself) better.

Books looked at this week:

Jessica Nordell: The End of Bias: A Beginning

Dr Dolly Chugh: The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias

PS. I do not receive commission for reviewing books and talks.


Exploring how we can master ourselves by looking at how experts say it is possible with your host Suswati Basu.

Intro music

Welcome to episode 44 of How To Be…with me Suswati as your timid presenter, guiding you through life’s tricky skills by taking this learning journey with you.

We have another week until Black History Month in Europe, hence it’s important to address the notion of bias. Bias apparently distorts truth. It interferes with our ability to truly understand the environments around us. So what can we do to ensure we minimise this?

Here’s what Naiyer Qureshi, a NeuroCoach who is a neuroscience-based life coach on bias.


Our first book is from Jessica Nordell, who is a science and culture journalist. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, the New York Times, the New Republic, and many other publications. A former writer and radio producer for American Public Media, she graduated from Harvard University and the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The End of Bias: A Beginning is her first book and I was lucky enough to speak to her as her book came out. Catch the full interview on or on the YouTube channel shortly.


Nordell says bias not only robs individuals of their futures, it robs fields of talent, companies of ideas, and culture of progress. It robs science of breakthroughs, art and literature of wisdom, and politics of insight.

She begins by addressing the “prejudice paradox”, where our values may not necessarily reflect our unconscious associations. Social psychologist Patricia Devine had set out to test the sincerity of White people who said they opposed racism in 1985 with the “prejudice paradox”.

On the one hand, White Americans overwhelmingly opposed racial prejudice: when asked, they denied holding racist beliefs. On the other, many still acted in racially discriminatory ways, both in lab settings and in the real world.

Devine talks about “priming”: planting a thought in a person’s mind in ways that could influence how they then perceived the world. For instance, if you presented someone with words like “careless,” then gave them a story about a whitewater kayaker, they’d be more likely to see the kayaker as reckless. It can even be done subliminally if flashed for a split second.

The word would hit the retina, flow through the visual system to the brain, activate the concept of hostile, and then affect people’s evaluations— without their awareness.

In addition to nudging people’s reactions, priming also seemed to open up a new way of understanding how knowledge was organized inside the mind. Bread being more automatically associated with butter for example in the west. So knowledge works more like a web network. Priming , therefore she imagined, would be a way to illuminate people’s hidden beliefs. Except what Devine found was that the subliminal messages affected everyone who was heavily primed with words relating to Black people even if their value system said otherwise.

Nordell writes when we engage in the same actions or thoughts repeatedly, they become habits of mind. These two modes, it appeared, could operate independently. They could even contradict each other so automatic and deliberate reactions could oppose each other in the same human brain. So even if people answered in a way that doesn’t show prejudice, they may still unconsciously still feel it. Therefore prejudice can be seen as a habit.

A belief, Devine claims, is something people actively choose, while an association is something that they absorb from their surroundings—cultural knowledge gained without their consent or even awareness. People who are prejudiced do not have this conflict.

This concept laid the groundwork for the concept of implicit bias or unintentional bias. It was a new way to think about prejudiced conduct: a habitual reaction rooted in deep associations. Devine believes having biased associations didn’t mean you were a bad person. It meant you existed in a culture and that we are products of society.

The idea of implicit bias however suggests that bias functions like a circuit. The circuit begins when we absorb “cultural knowledge” from the world around us. Over time, this information becomes deeply embedded as associations and stereotypes.

Does this mean people are lying or are we lying to ourselves? Nordell says not necessarily. It’s possible that many of us have simply not fully investigated our beliefs, especially if those beliefs clash with our values. And perceptions can shift in real time. Each person in an interaction exerts pressure on the other’s behavior.

An interesting example Nordell mentions is Universal film studio’s use of racial iffinity targeted Facebook ads during the 2016 Straight Outta Compton film promotion looking at the meteoric rise of hip hop group NWA. They say the film racked up $200 million in the box office by doing targeted ads for separate races even though it can be equated with racial profiling.

Here are examples of the two ads, the first was directed at African Americans, and the other at White Americans.


Why did it work? One possibility Nordell says is that holding and confirming stereotypes make people feel good. Holding them provides an illusion of certainty in uncertain situations; finding evidence that they are right is also affirming. Stereotyping, too, is an act of predicting an uncertain outcome. Our brains love to be right.

It’s suggested we start categorising information as young as three or four years old. Categorizing which is turning raw sensory data into meaningful information by grouping things that belong together—allows humans to perceive the world, make predictions about it , and survive as a species. But it also paves the way to discriminate.

Nordell says when we see beings as belonging to a particular group, we start to believe there’s something fundamental and biological that unites all the creatures in that group, we essentialise them. And the more a category is emphasized, the more we think it’s members have a unifying thread. Segregation is an example of this. Thus it paves the way for stereotyping.

This sequence— categorize, essentialize, stereotype— however, underestimates the variation among members of each group, imagining it as monolithic.

We also tend to see our own group as beautifully diverse and people outside it as homogeneous. Nordell describes this as “outgroup homogeneity,”. For example how crimes committed by a Muslim person is seen as a group identity in western media while white Christians who commit hate crimes are portrayed as individuals with mental health issues.

Research also suggests that our vision itself is partly a product of our culture: the categories and associations we learn affect how we process visual information. Like lighter coloured and darker coloured skin tones.

Psychologists Andrei Cimpian and Erika Salomon call the tendency to make quick assumptions “the inherence heuristic.” It’s less mentally demanding to believe that groups occupy the positions they do—because there’s something intrinsic to these groups that explains it and that it’s part of a pattern to maintain a status quo.

Also bias in academic studies typically captures one instance of discrimination at one time and place. What they do not do is account for how bias is actually experienced in the real world, where individuals are targeted by prejudice continuously over weeks, months, and years.

To assess any true impact of bias, Nordell and computer science professor Kenny Joseph helped to build a computer simulation that envisioned a given environment as a complex system where they were able to observe changes over time.

Using devaluation of women’s performance, greater penalty for women’s errors, losing credit to a male colleague, personality penalty, and opportunity bias as the criteria, even with just a 3 percent bias on average, after twenty promotion cycles, men came to represent 82 percent of the workforce of this made up company in the top positions.

The other aspect is the issue of diversity training. When psychologist Elizabeth Levy Paluck reviewed hundreds of interventions designed to reduce prejudice, she found that only 11 percent of the studies used experiments tested outside of a laboratory.

In one study, when White employees noted and appreciated differences, employees of color felt more engaged and detected less bias. Brain imaging studies suggest that when people are motivated to check biased behavior, they pay more attention to racial cues, and then work to curb their own stereotyping.

Trying to deny these differences, Devine confirms, makes discrimination worse. Humans, after all, see age and gender and skin color: that’s vision. Humans have associations about these categories: that’s culture.

Nordell attended a specialised diversity training called the Madison workshop. They said instead notice when stereotypes arise, and then actively replace them with alternative images. Look for situational reasons for a person’s behavior rather than assuming it comes from some inherent characteristic. Seek out and get to know people who are different from oneself. They also suggested trying, to envision the perspective of the other person. The message is bias is normal, but it’s not acceptable. You must evolve, but you’re not necessarily a bad person.

This is because habitual thinking uses parts of the brain including the basal ganglia and cerebellum. Deliberative thinking, which is slow and requires more effort, uses the prefrontal cortex, the part responsible for planning and more complex decision-making, which should take over the quick bias response.

Research also shows the more we understand history, the greater our grasp of present-day prejudice. Researchers call this link between knowing the truth about the past and recognizing present discrimination the “Marley Hypothesis,” as he sang “If you know your history / Then you would know where you coming from.”

When researchers analyzed fifty-seven different studies of racial discrimination, they found that people’s emotions about different racial groups had twice as much effect on their behavior as their intellectual beliefs. This is very apparent in terms of the US police force.

An analysis of nearly one thousand fatal shootings by on-duty police officers found that compared to White victims, African American victims were nearly twice as likely to be unarmed at the time they were shot.

In “The Bulletproof Warrior,” a police training seminar developed by former army ranger Dave Grossman, there is a division between us and them into sheep and wolves. Jeronimo Yanez, the police officer involved in the death of Philando Castile, also attended this training. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, the training was actually banned.

Another aspect is chronic stress through repeated traumatic events. Chronic stress affects how the brain processes threats . A person’s fear response involves multiple parts of the brain, including the amygdala, which helps detect salient threats in the environment and generate feelings of fear and anxiety, and the prefrontal cortex and other areas, which modulate a person’s reaction to bring it in line with reality.

This throws off one’s ability to regulate emotions thus it becomes a perfect storm for bias. Indeed, studies suggest that impaired officers do more racial profiling not to excuse any of this atrocious behaviour.

In the Watts Jigsaw experiment, it was noted at the time that dozens of officers in LA in the 1990s were implicated in a pattern of a blazing and criminal corruption. The way police operated fostered a lack of familiarity, which led to fear and dehumanization.

Thinking about Gordon Allport’s 1954 book The Nature of Prejudice we see that if people from different groups can join together with equal status to work cooperatively. They must have common goals. And the efforts should be backed by an institutional authority. This idea became known as the “contact hypothesis”. Hence this was used in Watts, LA where officers instead of interrogating and harassing residents, they were made to invest their time to get to know locals as human beings. What’s more community leaders and gang interventionists got involved in the initiative.

An independent analysis suggests this 2011 Community Safety Partnership is decreasing arrest rates. In the housing projects Jordan Downs, Nickerson Gardens, and Imperial Courts, arrests rates at the end of 2019 were about 50 percent of their levels in the year leading up the program.

The devastating disparate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color also vividly illuminates the disparities: the disproportionate burden can be traced to a web of social inequities , including more dangerous working conditions, lack of access to essential resources, and chronic health conditions stemming from ongoing exposure to inequality, racism, exclusion, and pollution. A 2016 study found that one half of White medical trainees still hold at least one false belief about racial differences for example.

Thus the Hopkins medical checklist is a kind of choice architecture because it doesn’t ask doctors to think more carefully about their biases; it simply interrupts the process by which they make decisions. The checklist however does not have the capacity to account for complex nuances. Similarly blind hiring works in the same way. Blocked from using assumptions and preconceptions, those in positions of power are forced to rely on official criteria alone.

But while choice architecture helps, structural adjustments cannot overpower more fundamental forces that tend toward maintaining the status quo. Ie When organizations fail people from marginalized groups by showing them in ways subtle and overt that they are not valued, they recruit talent only to hemorrhage it.

Seeing differences as riches and being willing to learn from those differences allows people to see conflict as an opportunity for growth, not a land mine to avoid. There’s an important caveat to this approach, however, says social psychologist Evelyn Carter. It only works in a safe environment.

Homogeneity is also a problem. Any field that is dominated by a limited range of human experience will find itself hampered by limited access to human ingenuity. Twitter for example has had a bias issue from the beginning because it did not foresee that the platform gives easy access to people to hurl abuse at women and people of colour given it was founded by four white men.

Public consensus can alter how people act as well: if people learn that a particular behavior is normal and popular, they engage in it more. People are more likely to help the environment if they hear others are also doing it for example .

On to our second book from Harvard University psychologist Dr Dolly Chugh with The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. The book offers an accessible guide to the complex world of unconscious biases and the fact it can effect anyone. Here she is at Google.


Dr Chugh says having a growth mindset is key to overcoming bias. Having a growth mindset shows a willingness to learn new things, and yet, many people have the opposite attitude, known as a fixed mindset, where people are less willing to improve. Often, fixed mindsets can lead to stubborn prejudices that prevent people from exploring new things.

Hollywood seems to be a good example of a fixed mindset. In an overview of the highest-grossing films in recent years, only 27 percent of the speaking roles were female. As for the top films of 2015, 48 of them didn’t contain a single black actor in a speaking role. What’s more, only 4 percent of Hollywood’s new movies are directed by women.

In terms of unconscious bias, essentially, it refers to the fact that people can unintentionally discriminate against others, or have prejudicial beliefs they’re not necessarily aware of.

Studies have shown that the average person processes around 11 million pieces of information every second. Yet, we only process around 40 of those on a conscious level! Therefore, you could say that 99.999 percent of the information we take in gets processed unconsciously. And this would include our unconscious biases. These are the automatic associations we make based on accumulated information like when people assume I ear curry because I’m South Asian.

So, how do you measure unconcious bias? One way to do it is through an Implicit Association Test (IAT), an online test developed by Harvard psychologists Mahzarin Banaji, Anthony Greenwald and Brian Nosek. It measures the extent of your unconscious biases by asking you to react as quickly as possible to a series of questions that speak to your unconscious associations. A bit like priming mentioned before, it kind of works like a truth serum.

Since 2011, many progressives have taken the test. Yet, about 75 percent of all participants have shown a conservative-minded bias by strongly associating women with nurturing and household activities, and men with career and working. A similar bias was revealed regarding race, as 85 percent of white Americans associated black people with dangerous objects, such as knives and guns. So it can be completely unconscious.

Apparently people also tend to discount their privileges unless they have something positive to focus on. Stanford psychologists in 2015, saw that White Americans actually emphasized the difficulty in their childhood more after being reminded of white privilege. This is reportedly because people believe that acknowledging their privilege makes their achievements appear unearned or undeserved. This is also seen in the workplace for employees with perks and high salaries.

The 2015 Stanford study also revealed that the participants had different responses if, prior to being reminded of their privilege, they were asked to reflect on an impressive past accomplishment or given positive feedback on a test they’d taken. Now, when asked about their childhoods, the participants were more likely to recognize their privilege, since they no longer felt that their sense of self-worth was under threat. Hence Dr Chugh recommends offering a compliment before reminding them of their privilege.

Just because we have unconscious biases, that doesn’t mean we have to accept them. With some effort, we can address them head-on and change how we interact with the world around us.

Joe Lentine for example, is a middle class white man living near Detroit, but had barely any interactions with African Americans which was common according to studies in the 1980s and 1990s. So he made it a mission to immerse himself, travelling around the world. And in 2009, when Lentine became the owner of Dental Plans Company, he addressed his biases even more proactively by partnering with an organization that helped transgender youth find jobs.

Another important aspect is that privileged people have the greatest power to counter unconscious biases and support minorities. A 2003 study by psychologists Alexander Czopp and Margo Monteith showed that objections to racist statements were taken much more seriously when they came from other white people, rather than people of color. According to the researchers this is because there’s a common unconscious bias that associates privileged people with power and so, when they counter a racist remark or behavior, it has a greater impact.

This is the same in the workspace according to a 2016 study, which found white males had more power to enact change without getting in trouble, hence they have a greater responsibility to help curb racism and promote workplace diversity.

Dr Chugh says there are three stages to changing your consciousness around racial identity demonstrated by author Jodi Picoult who undertook an anti-racism course when confronted with her own biases. The first stage is denial, which is accepting that racism exists and that we have prejudices. The second stage is acceptance, taking active measures towards recognising your bias. And the third stage is deeper understanding where you are how your own experience is different from others and the privileges that you have had.

Hence it’s important not to be colourblind. In a 2008 Harvard University study, when white people were paired with someone of their own race, 51 per cent asked if a drawn face that they had to describe was that of a black or white person, while in mixed pairs only 21 percent asked this question. These people were seen as more racist as a result.

Another unhelpful yet common trait is to categorize people as having certain qualities or behaviors based on race because stereotyping is also about homogeneity. So even if it’s m want to be complimentary ie. The so-called model minority myth, it really isn’t.

In 2006, when the author was researching her PhD on unconscious bias, she went out on the streets of Boston with a container of jelly beans and asked random people to guess how many were in the jar. She played recordings of actors with a range of different backgrounds but most people listened to the white male sounding voice. Hence she says make sure you listen to all voices and share credit honestly.

So to sum up:

Nordell says in The End of Bias that she believes we can overcome biases that are unconscious, unintentional, or unexamined. Relinquishing false, unexamined ideas and reflexes that have been passed down for hundreds or even thousands of years— requires great effort and, before effort, the will to change. But she also came to see how, in an open mind, the commitment to change becomes sturdier with the addition of knowledge.

The ways Nordell says we can address bias is through:
– Large systemic change
– political and social action with internal transformation
– mindful awareness to better regulate our internal landscape so that bias is less likely to overtake our responses
– meaningful, collaborative connections with people unlike ourselves
– build structured decision-making into our institutions and organizations to reduce the role of bias in everyday practices
– value the wealth all members bring to an organization
– spread new norms about how we engage with one another so that undermining bias becomes ordinary
– a firm grounding in history can be an engine of change
– mindfulness and self-compassion as you start addressing your own bias
– rethink the media we project to avoid reinforcing harmful assumptions.

Basically our humanity depends on our ability to bestow humanity on others.

Dr Chugh says in The Person You’re Meant To Be that unconscious biases are very real, even if the vast majority believe they have no prejudices. Research shows that many of us have negative biases against people of color. We’re also less willing to listen to advice that isn’t coming from a white man. It is possible, however, for all of us to increase our level of consciousness on matters of racial identity. To do so, we must be prepared to learn about what life is like for those who don’t have our personal experience and be persistent in questioning our unconscious biases. So she recommends be selective of the media you consume and ensure that you see all types of voices and stories being portrayed.

I have underlying biases I am sure of this, sometimes I have to catch myself and question whether my beliefs actually are in line with my values of honesty and respect for everyone. And of course as a disabled working class woman of colour, I’ve faced it often, so I hope this episode helps us look at each other as individuals. Join me next Thursday on Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces to discuss this complex topic and if you enjoyed this please hit subscribe.

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[…] The End of Bias: A Beginning – Jessica Nordell (check out the interview with the author in episode […]


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