Bias is a hot term. Hot because we’re hearing it around a lot these days, and hot because it has an emotional charge to it. So let’s step back and unpack the term bias. In this episode you’ll learn some of what bias means, some sneaky ways it can show up, and one bias that we all have that can seriously get in the way.
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Bias. Now bias is a term we’re all hearing quite a lot these days. And it’s got an emotional charge to it to be sure. So, knowing that words matter around here, in this episode we’re going to take a step back. Let’s look at this term bias. I’ll tell you how I understand it, what I mean by it. I’ll tell you about some sneaky ways that bias can show up, and importantly, one bias that we all have that’s very important to keep our eye on. This is 10 minutes to Better Patient Communication from Health Communication Partners. I’m Dr. Anne Marie Liebel.
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This newly updated and expanded bundle of audiobook, eBook, and supplementary materials will help you address unconscious or implicit bias in your language as a health professional. 2 hours of practical, culturally and linguistically relevant advice and research-based tools, in an unfussy, conversational format. Discounted class sets and institutional copies available.
So let’s talk about the term bias, right? It’s something that we all have. It’s part of human nature. It’s kind of a set of blind spots that we seem to acquire over a lifetime. Now I hold with the many researchers who assert that the point of working on our biases is not to eliminate bias–if such a thing were even possible–but for us to be aware of the many ways biases can emerge and to act accordingly. There are many different ways of understanding bias. Some definitions stress a kind of biological or evolutionary root to why we have biases. Some approaches focus on cognitive biases or take a psychological approach. I take more of the social approach to the nature of bias. And what that means is looking at bias as socially created, socially reinforced, and having social effects.
Now of course it’s easier to think about other people’s biases then it is to think about our own. But we are going home today! We’re going to talk about our own biases. Biases we know we hold are one thing. And there’s those biases that maybe we’ll admit to holding. But I’m going to focus today on the biases that we’re not conscious that we hold: yes unconscious bias.
Addressing unconscious bias can be distressing and uncomfortable Because a lot of us who genuinely seek to do good work in the world don’t want to think about how our own attitudes might be interfering with that work. It can be threatening to acknowledge that we live and participate in networks and systems that are geared to work better for some people than for others.
So biases show up in many ways: the interpersonal level, and at higher levels through societal values, community values, organizational laws, corporate procedures, corporate practices, even the material world around us. So some reluctance or resistance to addressing our own bias is understandable. There’s a lot of focus on getting conscious of bias or being aware of it. And it’s a necessary beginning place. But what next? I’m not going to leave you hanging! I’m gonna give you something to work with. So that’s why I’m going to talk about this one bias that we all have and that’s the ethnocentric bias.
In short, this is our tendency to take our own values or ways of doing things as normal. I’ve told this story before; my professor Brian Street used to tell us different versions of the fish story but it always had in common that the fish would be the last creature to discover water. It’s just another way of saying it’s hard to notice what you take for granted. This is especially hard if you are in social groups that have relatively more power. Dominant social groups, right? Because that’s how dominant social groups work: they normalize their normal, or in various ways claim their values as universal.
When we talk about dominant social groups, sure—race, class, gender. But there are dominant social groups in every social scenario: neighborhoods, communities, schools, business organizations, employers, lawmakers, even family get-togethers. And we’re all members of many overlapping social groups. So the more often you are in the dominant group in these scenarios, the harder it can be for you to notice your normal. And I’ll argue the more important it is for you to notice your normal!
So let’s unpack this a little bit. We are all socialized into the ways we talk, think, and act by the people that we hang around, the families that we’re part of, and later on, the social and professional groups that were part of. Over time, we come to inhabit these ways of working and being as normal. So why is it important to notice our normal? Why care about the ethnocentric bias?
Well, it is cool to develop some understanding of our own thought processes, see what’s going on under the hood. But I’m bringing it to your attention today because of another tendency that can kick in along with the ethnocentric bias, and that’s our tendency to see someone or something that’s different from us as less than us.
This is the deficit perspective. Deficit perspectives are where biases can hide, even from us, in our own words and actions. As an example, if someone doesn’t seem to be doing or saying what we think is normal or natural, we can unconsciously think less of them. There is an unconscious bias. Unfortunately these unconscious bias can emerge in words and actions. You might not notice these, but others will.
Remember I said biases show up in many ways? The interpersonal level is one of them. But when words make it into policies, laws, or mission statements, these too can unwittingly reflect biases. So that’s why the ethnocentric bias is an important one to recognize and talk about. Because our own norms or the norms of our social groups are driving the bus–whether we realize it or not!
So I’m going to encourage you to begin or continue the work of noticing your normal, so you have a chance of interrupting that deficit perspective before it sneaks into your words and actions or those of your organizations. Noticing our normal can bring our words and actions in line with our values. It also allows us to begin to consider patterns within our organizations. So that we can interrogate, individually and collectively, the larger structures that contribute to inequities. So remember the higher up the social hierarchy you are, the more relatives Social Capital you’ve got, the tougher this is going to be! So I said earlier the more often you’re in the dominant group in any social scenario, the harder it can be for you to notice your normal. Lots of other people see them though, I I promise! So if you really want to get good at noticing what you take for granted, listen to people outside your normal social groups–and take seriously what they have to say.
This has been 10 minutes to Better Patient Communication from Health Communication Partners. I’m Dr. Anne Marie Liebel.