PPS Monthly Peacebuilding Panel Series: The Psychology of Bias and How it Manifests at Work

On Thursday, October 22nd, Pollack Peacebuilding Systems (PPS) hosted our first ever Peacebuilding Panel, entitled, “The Psychology of Bias and How it Manifests at Work.” To spark thoughtful dialogue and discussion, we invited four panelists who are experts in their fields. These guests included PPS Founder Jeremy Pollack, PPS Peacebuilder Dr. Gigi Hamilton, World Migration Fund Founder Dr. Lisette Garcia, and Stanford University Researcher and Faculty Member, Dr. Steven Roberts. A variety of topics related to bias were discussed by these expert panelists:

What is bias and why does it exist in the human psyche?

The panel began by discussing the origins of bias, its purpose, and its relationship to society. The origins of bias are as ancient as the origins of humanity. Bias developed as an evolutionary function that gave humans the capability to consciously and unconsciously make mental shortcuts in order to quickly make decisions and solve problems. Today, when people talk about bias in society, they typically are talking about group-based biases specifically. However, while group bias is certainly pertinent in our society, there are many other types of biases that play both positive and negative roles in social relationships.

Dr. Steven Roberts
Dr. Steven Roberts

Dr. Steven Roberts spoke on the existence of group-based biases, explaining its connection to our systems and greater society: “There are a whole other set of factors that contribute to biases that is not captured by evolution. We may come in looking for group-based divisions, but our society and the history, norms, laws, and policies that contribute to group divisions will have an important effect on where our mental shortcuts take us.”

The panelists discussed how the United States’ society, history, norms, and laws contribute to the various group divisions that inform our group biases. As we grow through our formative years, we create unconscious and conscious thought processes based on the information given to us by our cultural norms. For better or worse, the United States’ cultural norms of hierarchy and power, as well as the laws and policies that enforce hierarchy and power dynamics, are still part of our culture today. By virtue of our human nature—specifically our tendency to take mental shortcuts in relation to the information our culture feeds us, it is fair to assume that our culture’s emphasis on hierarchy and power influences the direction these mental shortcuts take us.

In short, our biases are informed by our greater culture, systems, laws, policies, and norms. In turn, acting on these biases serves to reinforce the culture and systems we live in.

How can bias show up and affect the workplace?

Dr. Gigi Hamilton
Dr. Gigi Hamilton

Every organization has its own culture, planned through company values but actually created through employee behavior and actions. Dr. Gigi Hamilton, a mediator and licensed mental health counselor, explained that once we identify company culture, we can begin to look at employee practices which may intentionally or unintentionally incorporate bias: “The biggest thing to think about is how we are interviewing people and selecting them as potential candidates. Research shows that if you have an African-American name, you are less likely to actually be considered for a role.”

Bias shows up not only in the hiring process, but in performance appraisals, raise consideration, promotion consideration, and more. The impact of bias in the workplace includes high turnover rates, increase for potential lawsuits, and even physiological problems for employees. Dr. Hamilton explained that she has worked with clients experiencing the negative effects of workplace bias, who show consistent physiological symptoms of headaches, depression, anxiety, and stress.

Dr. Lisette Garcia
Dr. Lisette Garcia

It can be argued that each company culture is a microcosm of the greater culture of society, meaning that just like our broader culture, organizations have systems set up to support or not support certain biases. Dr. Lisette Garcia spoke to this, saying, “It all goes back to the fundamental concept and what all of our society is built around. We create these minority hiring guidelines and affirmative action policies, and we think that just by creating diversity, we are changing the organization. But we are not looking at the fact that the culture hasn’t changed.”

What can we do to mitigate the effects of bias at work?

When there is an issue that companies recognize, often they turn to an outside consulting firm to analyze the culture and the problem. Dr. Hamilton explained that utilizing outside guidance is very beneficial for companies. Consulting companies can assess the inner workings of the organization, identify the issue, and work towards creating solutions. This is preferable to simply installing a diversity & inclusion department and hiring a minority to lead that department, which is really just a band-aid solution to the problem.

Jeremy Pollack
PPS Founder Jeremy Pollack

PPS Founder, Jeremy Pollack, elucidated two additional actions that could be taken to mitigate the negative effects of bias in the workplace. The first action comes out of intergroup contact theory research and is relatively simple—get to know individuals. Pollack elaborated, saying, “When we have positive contact with other individuals, it actually reduces bias and prejudice. So, if we can get to know people, rather than just looking at them as representations of social categories, I think that certainly would help.” Companies do not typically create mechanisms, systems, or events that allow employees to get to know each other without forcing them to do so. Based on intergroup contact theory research, implementing ways to help employees connect with one another, and to do so of their own volition, could be very helpful in mitigating the negative effects of bias in the workplace.

The second action Pollack mentioned was to engage in programs that build self-awareness of biases and what they do. He mentioned that he leads people through writing exercises to examine biases: “I ask the question, ‘What kinds of information are you filtering out or filtering in to confirm your own beliefs?’ as a way to examine confirmation bias. Becoming more self-aware helps people transcend biases on some level.” Dr. Garcia agreed with this point, adding on the importance of sitting with your biases, recognizing the emotions attached to them, and then separating the two to get beyond the bias and emotion.

In addition to these two strategies, the panelists also agreed that implementing policies that affect the organizational system can be an effective strategy to mitigate the effects of bias at work. Dr. Roberts brought this to the table, advocating for incorporating concrete policies that directly affect employee practices which are often subject to human bias. These policies present a long-term solution to employee practice problems that often involve bias, prejudice, and discrimination. As mentioned previously, company culture is a microcosm of the broader society and carries many of society’s systemic norms into the workplace. One could argue that effective change requires changing the systems and structure itself. With this in mind, considering how inequalities can manifest in the workplace and what concrete policies can be put in place to correct these inequalities is a very important action towards making long-term structural change.

Final Takeaways

Considering that bias is rooted in human psychology, we likely will never be able to rid ourselves of it. In many cases, biases can bring positive mindsets and experiences into our lives, such as raising our self-esteem when we do not feel confident in ourselves. However, it is important that we recognize our own biases, the negative effects they can have, and how they are reinforced by the systems we live and work in. If we are able to recognize our own biases and challenge them, we can begin to bridge the gap between ourselves and the other. By doing this and enacting change in the systems we live in, we can work towards building a peace-centered society that acknowledges the benefits of not only what unites us, but what makes us different too.