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The Virus of Bias: Can it Be Stopped?

We know how dangerous a virus can be. They infect our bodies, our computers, and our communication. Worst of all, viruses are invisible and often nearly impossible to detect before they wreak havoc.

That’s the bad news. The good news? You can develop B-ray vision (the super power that enables you to see the virus of bias before it does its damage).

First, what is a bias and why is it so dangerous?

Actually, before that, let’s expose something. Biases are not all bad. In fact, some are essential. Example: you’re biased when you drive, you filter out visual information that would distract you.

That’s a constructive bias; we’re concerned about the destructive ones.

At their most basic level, biases are shortcuts that the brain makes to improve its efficiency at making decisions. Biases function in conjunction with our brain's reticular activating system (RAS) that determines what we pay attention to and what we don't; what we believe is valuable or of little value; what is dangerous and what is not.

The challenge is that because biases are merely a slice of the whole, they often are ineffective for making more complex decisions . . . ones that have a lasting effect. And that's where potentially destructive biases come into play.

A harmful bias is a prejudgment, an assumption, or misconception, usually unconscious (that is, we don’t know we have it, just like a virus). It filters out relevant information and blinds us to what’s really happening and to whose ideas are worthwhile. This makes people and resources literally vanish. That’s why some of our clients contact us—because they feel they’ve become invisible to their manager or leader who seems unable to see their talents or value.

Sadly, this is not unusual. We often hear of situations where someone’s feedback is discounted because others' biases misinform that the person has little to offer. Biases also impact who we choose for promotions or who we consider a “good fit” for a job we’ve posted.

What causes biases? Well, there’s a long answer and a short answer. Here’s the short one: it’s social programming. It happens by way of the media, our family, friends, subtly and overtly until our society’s biases become accepted as assumed truths by our unconscious mind (and our RAS).

But the virus of bias is not solely a workplace phenomenon. It happens in our political arena, in our communities, and even at home in our families. For example, we may not even hear our kids’ opinions because “we know what’s good for them.”

When the virus of bias is at play, one of the symptoms is an “us vs them” attitude that stokes competition and ignores collaborative opportunities. Another tactic of the virus is that it leads us to diminish the value of people we consider to be not part of our group—they become the “other.”

Here’s the big problem: When we model biased thinking, communicating, and behaving, we encourage and empower others to do the same. Yes, it's a virus and it’s infectious. And when it gets unleashed . . . so much for a successful organization or a happy family!

The first step towards a cure is awareness.

Learn about bias. Watch for it in your organization, family, and community. Be the “Norton Anti-Bias Software” for each other by pulling one another aside and letting your friend or colleague know when you see a bias playing out in their words or decisions and encouraging them to the same for you. It’s worth an investment of your time and attention and there’s a wealth of information on line.

Or you could just buy our book on Amazon (it’s got a great chapter on the Virus of Bias).

And you’re right. We admit it . . . we’re biased about this book! And that type of bias is called the “halo effect” and we’ll cover more on that type of bias in our next blog.

But for now, we always like to conclude these posts with a Thriving tip drawn from our book:

“Invite others to tell you when they perceive your bias.

This will inspire them to be more open-minded about their own.”

Will Wilkinson and Christopher Harding

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