In 2002, Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in Economic Science for examining and effectively proving bias existed in human activity. The Nobel Committee said it this way. “For having integrated insights from psychological research into economic science, especially concerning human judgment and decision-making under uncertainty.”
In 1982 when I researched the bias of researchers for my dissertation, I could not get it accepted nor get it published. It was designated “theoretical” since it was about bias and “one can’t study inside the mind.” A very biased view of research before Kahneman did something similar. So I chose another subject and proceeded. But, that dual dismissal has motivated me my whole life. I was called to explore this bias decades before from my family and social experience. If I could not make sense of it, I swore I would lose my mind. Which my mother had already done, and my sister would eventually succumb to as well. Each were diagnosed with mental illness.
My purpose was different than Kahneman’s and, in fact, goes outside his work. I had already seen bias at work, even as a young child in the racist South with a radically racist father and an experience of people seeking to deeply influence my way of seeing people of color and different gender identification. My question even by the time I was seven was, “Can you and how do you change bias?”
Kahneman is still coming late to the game. When interviewed recently he claimed to believe bias cannot be changed and to have never applied his research to himself. Starting with my dissertation research, but mostly on the application of practical change processes, I proved that bias can be shifted and have used it on myself and with everyone I touch for over four decades.
My dissertation was about getting graduate students, while writing their own dissertations and involved in doing their own research, to examine their own biases as they worked. They were to report on observations, shifts is thinking, as well as the impact that their observations — using a set of proscribed processes — had on them. Specifically, what biases they observed and how their biases were affecting their work. It was based on an action learning and research process I designed. I had 22 students who joined in the project for over a year.
It was not accepted because it was seen as theoretical, not behavioral. And that is one of the biases that has been driving science, including Kahneman, for decades. I think it is time to share my extensive research of that time and the follow up for decades of the participants involved in their work. It has been held in the private realm all this time.
My work was on research in academic institutions but it is relevant to all organizations. Research and change processes are about increasing understanding and applicability to our lives and work, and having all people be able to contribute and grow their potential. This means being able to see our biases and their effects. And to increasingly change its effects and event existence.
I did learn how to erode bias very successfully, including my own. And make explicit a way to do that.
A Broad Overview of the Project to Examine Bias
The objective of the project was self-directed reflection with framework thinking. Participants were set up with a reflective journaling process for an assessment of themselves on their own research work.
Before they started, before even designing a protocol, the students were asked what they believed about the subject they were interested in. They also had to plan how to maintain their own objectivity and do a self-assessment on how likely they saw themselves removing biases or letting bias affect their decisions in their research.
Next, they were asked what they believed about various research methodologies they were considering. How would they be objective in the design and execution of their design? Additionally, how well did they predict they would be able to stay objective and not be influenced or influence others involved?
Before summarizing and presenting findings, we did a similar process of projecting their beliefs, how findings can be mismanaged and presented, and their own prediction on themselves in avoiding these pitfalls.
Daily, in each instance, they committed time to record reflections regarding their observations on the choices they made about methodology at the beginning, methodology in the middle and summarizing and drawing conclusions in the end. The students were asked to evaluate their own decisions and work, and where their pre-articulated beliefs were affecting these three phases. We converted their pre-statements into principles they wanted to pursue and asked them to rate themselves on success in pursuit thereof, adding explanatory notes.
The ratings were self-reflection and were not to be seen by anyone besides themself. Simply, “How well they were doing,” on each principle by these three categories: Getting it about right, Over attending, and Under attending.
Notes were made to share with me and my team on how well they were on target for what they expected and the effect of those targets on their work.
When were they obsessed with something to the point of excluding other important things in their life or work? And what was the effect of that obsession on their work? When did they tend to ignore what they had stated as desired, even after several days of being asked and what effect did that have?
All were asked to share how and what they noticed in terms of this “lack of capability to manage the hidden variables of bias,” and how it affected their decisions on research questions and methods, interpretations of data and reported findings.
All though there were variations, all 22 reported being surprised at how bad they were at sticking to their aspirations and research objectivity. They were very specific about their ability to see their own biases in work and the effects of them on their choices. These were psychology doctoral students so the effects could have been extreme. There was a great deal of hand-wringing on what this meant for their work with patients and clients.
After a few months, we followed up to ask them to continue the project but there was no expectation for them to report to us. Of the original 22 students, 19 of them continued in the same way and reported that, over time, they got better at making an appropriate correlation using a ritual of reflection with their own principles versus abstract ones given in a methods class. A few pursued a career in research as a result of being involved in the experiment.
As a result, though it was never accepted for my dissertation or publication, this work had a lasting effect on me for decades to come. I took a path of educating people on how to watch their own mind at work and the effect of their thinking on the outcomes they achieved and the effects on others. I applied it to strategic thinking biases, leadership and management bias, as well as personal biases resulting in all the “isms” of society (racism, genderism). The reason is that the self-directed reflection and examination was the best way to root out one’s own biases. Particularly when coupled with education without advocacy. Self-reflection, examination, and education was faster, deeper, and more effective at bringing about change across a broader set of subjects simultaneously and continued to change people over time.
One of my earliest large scale successful applications was in Boksburg, South Africa, working in a co-creative process with Colgate Palmolive, in the mid to late nineties. This was during transition out of apartheid led by Mandela. We had all members of a core team involved in a similar process, as they were committed to executing on the new Constitutional Mandate and creating a radical redesign of business practice based on a living systems framework. Each business, institution and organization was given five years to have the executive levels of the organization reflect the racial mix of the population at large. The existing executive demographic were mostly upside down with 97% being white with a 97% black African population.
Most claimed this Constitutional Mandate was an impossibility since Black Africans had been barred from formal schooling for decades and even generations in the large metropolitan areas. We not only achieved it, we managed to flip the leadership of Boksburg Colgate business leadership in six months. Mandela created and gave Colgate the Constitutional Award for proving it could be done effectively since we also grew the business revenue by 45% in a commodity business. That rate continued for the next five years under the leadership of Stelios Tsezos, General Manager for Colgate Africa.
One of the greatest successes of the “bias reflection” process, beyond demonstrating the rapid result it offers, was the leadership’s shift from only counting formal schooling toward qualification for top roles. It had been a way to embed systemic racism. Leadership began to count leadership experience in the townships of South Africa as a qualification. This came from a taskforce, led by a White Afrikaans manager, who formally engaged the task team in the reflection and journaling I had offered. They also reflected on what was changing for them at the end of each meeting. When Mandela offered the plaque for the award, the new executives pulled him to the front of the room with them. They later said it was because he had the hardest job and the most to change and they wanted to honor that.
The business relevance of bias is in the newspaper daily in the twenty-first century. The impact is found in every institution from justice to education to the workplace. The tendency is to work on it directly, head on. What I did, and you can do, is work indirectly. Direct confrontation of bias tends to escalate it into opposing forces. You work on the capability to see bias in something indirectly related.
The Approach: Working on a business endeavor, personally decide to reflect on your bias on the project, not their relationships to others. Learning to see bias, and being self-directed in that reflection, builds the mental practice of seeing how our own thinking gets in the way of our intentions. That has a spill over effect after doing for a sustained period of time without the necessity of confrontation and the polarization. It seems counter-intuitive but it is really a different paradigm which we have become attached to. Direct slows down change. Indirect, capability building and consciousness, is not only faster and deeper, but more extensive in it effects and domains. We can’t escape our old paradigms without putting in the work, self-reflection, and education. Those who have tried it have inspired themselves and others. Which is a great way to start change!
If you would like to read more of this story, many of the details are in my books: The Responsible Business: Reimagining Sustainability and Success, and No More Feedback: Cultivate Consciousness at Work.