Let’s be clear about bias and prejudice


Let’s understand that the reason we are biased and prejudiced is because being so was once a really good thing. This is a topic I come back to often because it is so important that we don’t misunderstand it. If we get it wrong many of the remedies countering exclusion that we put in place won’t work. When that happens, we waste the precious and scarce resources of time, attention, and commitment.

At the time of drafting I had just finished reading Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. It’s a sobering survey of our impulses to respond to cognitive dissonance in self-justifying ways.

Here’s what the Amazon blurb for the book says: Renowned social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson take a compelling look into how the brain is wired for self-justification. When we make mistakes, we must calm the cognitive dissonance that jars our feelings of self-worth. And so we create fictions that absolve us of responsibility, restoring our belief that we are smart, moral, and right – a belief that often keeps us on a course that is dumb, immoral, and wrong.

Things have changed since our brains were hard-wired for impulses that served tribes well, but let individuals be sacrificed in the interest of the tribe. A male who over-estimated his strength and speed may die miscalculating a mammoth’s reaction, but maybe only after a run of successes that kept the tribe in food and other mammoth generated resources – like hide and bones.

Young males today perpetuate that same habit, which is fine in sport and military service – once disciplined – but tragic on our roads and in pub fights.

The fact that we are hard-wired to imagine we are smarter and more capable than we really are isn’t an inherent problem. It just becomes a problem in the wrong context. 

Likewise, our reflex to be biased and prejudiced was a positive survival mechanism that favoured family or tribe for good reasons. These days bias and prejudice operate in ways that sustain bonds and relationships on a private level – and about which we usually give no thought. I have family members who now and then struggle financially, and I help them even though there are unrelated others who may have an even harder time and also need help.

I have noted elsewhere that we have shortened ‘inappropriate discrimination’ to just ‘discrimination’. We now have ‘anti-discrimination’ legislation because, apparently, ‘anti-inappropriate discrimination’ is too cognitively taxing for legislators and policy makers.

Being a ‘discriminating’ person was once a good thing to be. It meant that you chose carefully and wisely with an eye to quality. But no more.

So many of our impulses have gone the same way. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being biased. Its just not appropriate in some situations. This is what we need to understand.

Dealing with human nature

My suspicion is that self-justification is also a default survival reflex. We do better if we over-estimate our ability than under-estimate it. In short, confidence is better than self-reflective honesty in many cases. This is especially so when you must act boldly and quickly. There are many instances when over-estimating our abilities can be beneficial, but it can also be catastrophic. But like so many hard-wired reflexes we must modify them to match our reality.

Our brains were hard-wired 10s of thousands of years ago and the culture we live in now is around 250 years old at the most.

If we look at reflexes and impulses that were developed at our origins and see that they now cause problems its only because our social environment has evolved rapidly and radically. Now we find ourselves in work and social situations where being unself-reflective, biased, and prejudiced aren’t desirable traits.

The interests of corporations, NGOs and government agencies in sophisticated western communities are not advanced by permitting biased and prejudiced behaviour to prevail. These organisations respond to our increasingly complex, diverse, and pluralistic communities which have an expectation of equity by making policies consistent with those expectations – but not with our habits or reflexes. We are living in an aspirational reality.

Whether this expectation is a good thing or not has been mostly decided in favour. We have collectively agreed we are aspirational. We now have laws and policies to back up that popular position. But not everyone agrees or is keen on complying.

Our cultural reality has evolved to a point where once useful and even necessary reflexes contradict the present social intention. Where exclusion was once a necessary survival reflex it can now be a cultural deficit. And the more specific the culture the more that deficit becomes problematic.

Our cultural and social evolution has outpaced our biological ability to adapt. We are playing catch up – all of us are.

There is intentional work to be done

The reason The Ten Commandments is a thing is that humans require constant reminders that they must modify instincts and impulses to conform to the aspirations of the community in which they live.

We have imposed a moral value upon conduct which is natural to us, but which is no longer appropriate to the community we live in. This can lead us to imagine that inappropriate conduct is inherently wrong rather than simply out of place.

How we respond to demands to change our values and behaviour in conformity with relatively new ideas varies widely. A minority will change rapidly to conform to the new ideas, ideals, and values. A minority will not comply and do so with strongly articulated determination. The majority will change with varying degrees of enthusiasm and capacity.

Altering reflexive behaviour requires effort. We may or may not have the cognitive and emotional resources to change our reflexive behaviour quickly, even when we want to. This is true of all of us.

Switching on and off doesn’t work

It isn’t easy to be highly inclusive at work and return to being very biased and prejudiced out of hours. For some this may, however, be a necessary balancing act to cater to work and personal realities.

Leaders of organisations understandably don’t feel an obligation to be overly concerned about an employee’s private life. But how they are able to comply with work-based inclusion policies will be powerfully influenced by their personal life circumstances. Sometimes those circumstances can cause a tension.

I grew up in a family steeped in Northern Irish Protestantism. We had migrated from Northern Ireland to Australia, but my father expected I would obey his injunction to despise Catholics. At the time I was in a small rural primary school and excluding kids who were Catholic wasn’t anything I was about to do. It would have meant excluding kids I really liked and getting into fights I had no desire to have. My father didn’t understand this. Neither did he understand that conflict with him was more in my interests than obedience. For some, however, conflict with inclusion policies can be more in their interests.

Working for an organisation with inclusion policies can place tensions on people whose private situation may be dominated by historic, cultural, and religious pressures to behave in exclusionary ways.

It’s hard enough to be consistently inclusive intentionally when you want to be and when the only real impediment is a lack of practice and an established habit. Its far far harder when there are strong influences that are anti-inclusion at play in your life.


Inclusion is everyone’s business. It always has been. There is evidence our ancient ancestors cared for their severely disabled family members. But between now and then we also responded to necessary us vs them imperatives.

In contemporary organisations we still find layers of power and privilege that trigger us vs them responses, but our goal – for our shared wellbeing – is to expand the embrace of our sense of us through acts of inclusion to encompass the whole workforce as a community – and beyond to include customers, service users and service providers.

This is a huge endeavour. It has been a work in progress of decades, and there is much work yet to be done. We will achieve our desired goals faster if we understand the challenge clearly.

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