Unconscious Bias Training Flaws

Recently at a virtual unconscious bias training I attended, I and dozens of others were asked to assess five pictures of individuals and rate them on the following scale:

1. Low warmth, low competence

2. Low warmth, high competence

3. High warmth, high competence

4. High warmth, low competence

I recognized only one of the faces in the pictures shown. For various reasons, I scored each person as “high warmth, high competence.”

After we submitted our scores, the trainer asked us what factors informed our decisions. She gave us a list of common ones: gender, religion, age, posture, facial expression, etc. We all agreed these were reasonable.

The trainer then revealed the stories behind the photos. As it turns out, all of the individuals were known for being “high warmth, high competence.”

Many of my fellow attendees were astonished. To paraphrase one of the many remarks (which were submitted through an instant message tool; all cameras were off): “Wow, I wouldn’t have guessed that. I made a snap judgment based on the person’s body weight and tattoos.” Others saw a picture of an elderly woman in traditional Indian apparel and judged her to be high in warmth but low in competence. In fact she is an accomplished Indian politician. Whoops.

Frankly I was baffled by these reactions. It is true that one of the persons in question was large and stout, and sported a tattoo. But isn’t everyone taught in grade school not to judge a book by its cover? I thought the man’s posture and facial expression reflected not only confidence but inner gentleness. Similarly for the Indian woman, I felt that her picture conveyed equal parts warmth and strength.

This made me wonder how I actually size people up in practice. It is one thing to look at pictures where you suspect a surprise around the corner. But imagine you’re with loud, rambunctious peers who aren’t afraid to crack crude jokes, or who know a bit more about the people in the pictures. Perhaps you’re all drinking at a local pub, eating snacks before the television, airing your personal takes. Wouldn’t you be influenced by the mood and opinions of the moment? Indeed, isn’t this sort of dynamic just as common a place to judge others as in the privacy of our homes and offices? We speak and act in highly dynamic groups, and it is inevitable that our assessment of strangers will be profoundly shaped by our eagerness to successfully “fit in”—for the simple reason that we have a vested interest in maintaining our peers’ approval.

If this is true, then I think the training I attended was woefully impoverished. While it may have broadened my mind regarding outward appearances, it did little to hone my ability to resist the insidious effects of of peer pressure.

What if we spent more time being trained on the subtle ways that our desire for acceptance forms and motivates our thinking? In this regard I know of no better resource than Alan Jacobs’ book How to Think. Another good one is “The Inner Ring” by C.S. Lewis (which receives extended analysis in Jacobs’ book). Both Jacobs and Lewis argue that we do not think for ourselves but with other people. Whether we are with friends, colleagues at work, or neighbors at the bus stop, we are extremely prone to going along with the social flow even if it means acting against our own deeply-held convictions. The unconscious bias trainings I have attended over the years fail to account for this phenomenon. The general assumption seems to be that so long as we are informed and aware enough of the existence of unconscious bias, we will be perceptive and courageous enough to identify it and correct course: or, to put it more crassly, to speak out when our friends are being assholes. This is a naive assumption, to put it mildly.

Another step companies should take is to be highly critical of any situation where the “culture fit” criterion is used in the hiring process without clear examples and definitions. I am thinking specifically of tech companies because I work in tech and have seen firsthand the “culture fit” factor lead to all sorts of confusion.

Let’s say for instance that you are a politically liberal employee of a hip, Silicon Valley startup whose employees are, like you, deeply liberal in their outlook. Say you are on an interview panel evaluating job candidates, and you happen to discover that one candidate, despite his strong skillset, holds conservative political beliefs you find offensive. You are not going to be excited about hiring this candidate no matter how qualified he is. (The reverse is just as conceivable: In a tech company dominated by conservatives, you would likely feel uncomfortable about hiring a liberal-leaning job applicant.) But since you cannot admit as much, you will be tempted to fall back on the ill-defined “culture fit” criterion to justify your concerns. You might say, for example, that the applicant wouldn’t thrive because his or her personality just “wouldn’t gel” with the organization’s progressive, fast-paced spirit; he or she would have a hard time getting along; he or she would struggle to command the respect of others.

This is obviously stupid when it happens. To begin with, who’s to say (to continue with the example) your unconscious bias isn’t motivating you to disfavor a conservative? More importantly, the whole point of diversity is to avoid group think and leverage the strength inherent in differences, even at the cost of any friction which might ensue. Better to ask: What does “culture fit” mean, exactly? In what specific cases–if any!—do concerns about culture fit lead to legitimate disqualification from a job? What are some examples? If there is a valid concern about culture fit, why couldn’t it be resolved without having to reject a candidate who is otherwise perfectly qualified?

I am sure there are solid answers to these questions, but the unconscious bias training I attended did not incorporate them.

Image Credit: https://salud-america.org. “Mechanism of Discrimination: The Problem of Implicit Bias.”