June 06, 2014

Mahzarin Banaji

Mahzarin Banaji at a conference. Credit: University of Texas School of Law / Flickr Creative Commons

Guest:

Why do well-intentioned people discriminate, even when they don’t mean to?

For one thing, it’s deeply ingrained. At about three months, babies develop “a preference for people of the same color as [their] own parents,” says Mahzarin Banaji, Harvard psychologist and author of Blindspot: The Hidden Biases of Good People

However, she notes, “Ethiopian Jews who moved to Israel and had a mixture of people taking care of the babies showed no preference at all, suggesting that this is very much learned.”

For most of us, though, preferences and prejudices become more deeply rooted as we grow older.

Banaji cites new research that this bias surfaces in all sorts of daily decisions, including hiring.

When managers look for employees who are good at math, they opt for men over women. Even when they know that the female candidates can do math just as well as the male candidates, employers still gravitate to the men.

“People systematically pick more men than women given equal qualifications, but women do this just as much as men do,” says Banaji.

Knowing that everyone has the potential for this bias, how can we counteract it?

Broaden your perspective, listen to people you disagree with, and make sure you know the rational reasons why you made a given decision, advises Banaji. She adds that technology is allowing us to increasingly encounter people from different backgrounds and diverse cultures, helping to break down hidden biases.  

bias, Mahzarin Banaji, Culture, psychology, Business

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