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The Behavioral Science of Bias & Change

· behavioral science

I'm not a neuroscientist, but I play one in the sales world.

Everything I see I now look at through a behavioral science lens.

What has happened since May 25th in this country is a study in how we, as human beings, form opinions, process logic, and take action.

To start, we must all foundationally realize that logic, in itself, is polarizing. As human beings, we process new information through a filter which houses our opinions, beliefs, and biases.

We’ve seen it in all things - politics, religion, even COVID. Our brains use logic to reinforce our already held beliefs - we do not use logic to form those beliefs unless we are truly a blank canvas with which to begin.

In this case, none of us are a blank canvas.

When we hear logic that supports our beliefs, our beliefs get stronger, as we file that information to help us support and justify our opinion.

When we hear logic that goes against our beliefs, our beliefs also get stronger. Yes...it's a shortcut our brains take. We process that logic through our internal lens, we subconsciously counter-argue the point, then use our counterargument to also help us support and justify our previously held opinion.

How do we fix the filter? We must first understand that our beliefs and biases are formed through three primary channels:

  1. Your Upbringing
  2. By Those You Respect
  3. By Your Lifetime of Experiences

Your Upbringing

When we wonder why it has taken so long as a society to recognize that we share 99.9% of our DNA with every single human being, it's a long process. A parent must instill this in their children, who then must instill it in their children. With each generation, we make a little bit of progress, but if you're raised with biases, we are ingrained to hold onto those biases, which we then pass to our children.

It starts here.

By Those You Respect

We subconsciously gravitate to those who think, feel and believe in many of the same things we do. This is something we all do. It's a reptilian core of our wiring.

When we're surrounded by others who act & feel the way we do, our beliefs are hardened and more difficult to dislodge.

By Your Lifetime of Experiences

When what we experience doesn't match up with our biases, our biases change. When we're put in situations that test our beliefs, those outcomes change our beliefs.

For example, my parents instilled in me a dislike for sushi. Raw fish? That's disgusting!

When I was in my 20's working for SAP, first week on the job, I was taken to a "welcome" lunch with regional leadership. We went to a Japanese restaurant, where they proceeded to fill the table with sushi. I felt almost pressured to try it.

I'm now in my 40's, and feel like I wasted half of my life not knowing how fantastic it is.


Experience trumps bias!

Ok, then...so what?

We've seemingly headed down a two-fold solution path, which, according to my understanding of the behavioral science, tells me that we'll only make small gains:

:

1) Conversations: When I see things like “silence is betrayal” and the hashtag #silenceisviolence, I’m afraid we’re all just preaching to the choir...

...because the ones that need to hear aren’t listening.

...because the ones that need to change are already biased, and are processing your logic through a filtered lens.

If all we do is talk, three weeks from now we’ll be on to another subject, like we have so many times in our history. We will have all agreed with one another that something must change, which along with a couple of bucks will get us a cup of coffee, right?

In a study conducted in 2007 (Price & Wolfers) studying subconscious bias - actually in NBA referees, it was found that more personal fouls were awarded against players when they were officiated by an opposite-race officiating crew. The biases were significant enough to effect the outcome of games. Players of the same race as the referees earned up to 4% less fouls or scored up to 2 1/2% more points when they were refereed by a same race crew.

 

Clearly it's inherent & subconscious. However, what the study also found, is that "awareness" has a marked impact. Awareness of a bias does, often times, make the bias go away.

 

Bottom line, talking & protesting do help - but lasting change requires more.

See the three ways our opinions, beliefs and biases are formed up above again. Do you see anything that says, “a social media post”?

2) Laws: Putting the owness on government to create laws that punish those biases creates an aversion to expressing and acting on those biases, which certainly helps.

However, they don't change the bias! They create a pressure cooker inside those who house the bias, which eventually stacks up and explodes, restarting the circle of division, crime and violence.

So, in looking at those three up above one more time, how do we actually make change happen this time?

A new way to think about it...

If we understand two things: (1) how logic is polarizing, and (2) how we form opinions and biases, we must go far beyond just talk and laws.

It starts with parenting - but that takes generations. It's practically impossible to control. I know how my wife and I are raising our children, but do I know how those with bias are raising theirs?

And given that we're drawn to be with people who think, act and often look like we do, the path of surrounding individuals with those they respect who also can help those individuals see the light, it's also a slow trudge to a better outcome.

If we look to leadership or "celebrities" we respect to create change, that's also a good thing, but it also takes time. Logic is polarizing. If leaders simply spout off logical reasons why we should love one another as we love ourselves or celebrities tweeting about it, biases will remain.

It's experiences that change outcomes quickly.

I believe it can start in the workplace. We must, as a society, go all-in on prioritizing diversity in the workplace. There's a lot of talk about the lack of diversity in organizational senior leadership, boards of directors, and across the employee base.

I've seen it and experienced it.

I performed a sales skills workshop of an organization last year. It was a room full of middle-aged white men.

I asked one of the leaders (who also happened to be a long time acquaintance) how this was even possible? He responded, "We prioritize diversity, but these historically have been the only applicants we received."

My answer? Well then, you're writing your job descriptions with subconscious bias, and you're looking in the wrong places. Open your eyes.

I don't have the answers.

We must change beliefs through parenting, mentors and experiences.

We must make this a turning point.

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