Real Leaders

3 Tips for Interrupting Unconscious Bias

Smiling firefighter’s portrait

“Why do you brush your teeth?” When I ask that question in my unconscious bias training, people always give me an extraordinary look. 

Because you want healthy teeth and fresh breath, obviously, except for millennia, humans were perfectly happy without either. So what changed?  

Advertising. Marketing. Pepsodent, especially. They made you want to brush your teeth. They made you desire that clean feeling. They made it into a habit. 

A habit is changed behavior. And making people want to do something is how we always think habits should form. Change hearts and minds, and changed behavior will follow. 

But it’s not the only way. It’s not the reason, for example, why you put on your seatbelt. You put on your seatbelt because, for decades, legislators have said we should. Now you do it automatically — so automatically that it has become a habit. They changed the rules; they changed the world. 

If you want to interrupt bias for good, and create a fair and equitable world for everyone, adopt new habits to change your behavior. If you keep on doing it, day in and day out, your new habits will replace the old habits you had before.  

You can apply this practice to interrupt unconscious biases. It just takes doing the work. Here are three tips to help you start. 

1. Slow down your thinking. Bias occurs because you have a fast, automatic part of your brain that instantly makes conclusions about everyone. It processes over 99 percent of the information coming at you. But you have to slow that way down. When it comes to your interactions and assumptions, you need to create the habit of letting the slower, more rational, more reasonable part of your brain kick in. When you find yourself making assumptions about someone, ask yourself why. Uncover the facts. Why did you reach that conclusion? What evidence demonstrated that belief? When you find yourself forming first impressions of people, analyze why and how you made those first impressions.   

2. Create a counter-stereotypical narrative. In her excellent TED Talk, The Danger of the Single Story, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about how stereotypes create only a single story about a person — a single account that is incomplete. Work to build other stories about the person for whom you’ve made an assumption. Consider your initial reaction to this scene: Nine people are in a bar — two are lawyers, one is a truck driver, two are doctors, one is a judge, one is a legal assistant, one is a firefighter, and one is the bartender. Now think about it — did you assume that everyone in the bar was a White man, except for perhaps the legal assistant? That assumption results from living in a world that portrays those roles as reserved for White men. Interrupt that unconscious bias by creating a counter-stereotypical narrative in your head. Imagine Korean judges and Black lawyers and Native American doctors and women firefighters. Constantly interrupt this shortcut thinking in your head.  

3. See the person, not the stereotype. Practice this pointer when, for example, you see someone arrive late for an appointment. Don’t assume that you know what the reason is because of the stereotypes you have of that particular person’s group (“people like her are always late”). Instead, start by observing what’s happening in the moment — right now. Explore explanations for why this is happening. Again, slow down your thinking and increase your objectivity. See the person, not the stereotype. And do it with empathy. You’re not critiquing for the sake of criticizing. You’re exploring with the goal of understanding. It’s not enough to see beyond the stereotype. Do the extra work to see the person as well.  

Create new habits. Build new behaviors. That’s how you can interrupt unconscious bias for good. 

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