Slowing Down Our Thinking to Reduce Bias
How exactly do we do that?
Posted Apr 03, 2018
One of my regular suggestions for how to reduce bias is to slow down our thinking. Many biases are actually defined in part as fast thinking, especially heuristics.
To avoid a first-impression heuristic in hiring, and thus to find the best candidate, some business leaders recommend that interviewers withhold all personal judgments (positive and negative) until the 31st minute (Leibs, 2014).
Malcolm Gladwell famously argued in his 2005 book Blink that when we make a judgment in the blink of an eye, we are often correct even if we don’t know why we made that judgment. But years later I happened upon an interview in which he seemed to take it back.
In 2013, Gladwell reflected back on his book and said that a fast judgment is “probably more often terrible than it is good” (60 Minutes Overtime, 2013). Even the author of Blink has come around.
So OK, fast is bad if we’re trying to avoid bias. But how exactly do we slow down our thinking? If someone behaves negatively toward us, how do we resist jumping to the obvious conclusion that this person is a jerk? If we hold a bias against a certain group of people and we see one of them, how do we hold back the prejudice? Easier said than done, right?
Well, first, let me note that the suggestion to slow down our thinking is probably not the most precise or complete way to describe this strategy. Thoughts are difficult to control, especially the initial thought triggered by a stimulus such as jerky behavior. “What a jerk” might come to our mind way too fast to prevent.
What is easier to control is how we act upon our initial thought or, as described in the mindfulness tradition, how we react to it. What do we do when our gut tells us we’re facing a jerk?
We might have further thoughts, like what kind of a jerk this person is and what we’d like to say or do to defend ourselves. And then we might say or do those things. I’m not a neuroscientist, but somewhere between the initial gut reaction and yelling may lie what most of us consider a judgment.
So how do we slow down this process from gut to yelling?
Distracting ourselves or the well-known counting to ten has some research support (Bushman, 2013; Finkel et al., 2009). Mindfulness techniques work for many people (Creswell, 2017). General research on self-control suggests that eating and exercising regularly can increase willpower (American Psychological Association, 2018).
When someone behaves badly, we can also simply ask ourselves why, even while “jerk” flashes through our mind. We can also ask the jerk why, or we can consult with friends and family. This process takes time. And in the meantime, we might find other potential causes that steer us away from a biased judgment.
Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes this person is a true jerk who doesn’t deserve the slow treatment. But if the goal is to reduce bias, then reserving judgment can help. Gather more information before making a firm decision (if possible). Maybe you’re already 99 percent sure, but you usually don’t have to speak it or act on it right away. And once you speak or act, it’s psychologically harder to form new thoughts.
Realize there’s no statute of limitations on getting upset at someone. That driver who cut you off is long gone anyway. Why not wait until you get home to decide how evil he or she was?
If the person who hurt you is still there, or if someone expects you to say something, there are words you can use to help yourself to slow down without looking weak or naïve. Those words include “perhaps,” “seems,” and “I could be wrong but.”
“He seems like such a jerk.”
“I could be wrong but what an idiot.”
Such wordings can allow you more time to think even if you’re feeling pressured by the situation to take a stand more quickly.
You can also make it a question. “What’s her problem?” That’s pretty close to a judgment, but not quite there—technically there can be answers besides jerk and idiot. “What’s going on?” might allow even more temporal wiggle room.
If your heart’s not really into this slowing-down idea, there are motivating adages and quotes that might help.
“Look before you leap.”
“Haste makes waste.”
“Don’t judge a book by its cover.”
“Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald
Sometimes we need to yell at jerks. But usually, there’s not much harm in waiting a little to make that call.
American Psychological Association, “What You Need to Know about Willpower: The Psychological Science of Self-Control,” 2018, apa.org, http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/willpower.aspx (accessed March 28, 2018).
“Author Malcolm Gladwell on His Best-Selling Books,” interview by Anderson Cooper, 60 Minutes Overtime, November 24, 2013, video, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/author-malcolm-gladwell-on-his-best-selling-books/ (accessed July 25, 2017).
Brad J. Bushman, “Anger Management: What Works and What Doesn't,” Psychology Today, September 25, 2013, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/get-psyched/201309/anger-management-what-works-and-what-doesnt (accessed March 30, 2018).
J. D. Creswell, “Mindfulness Interventions,” Annual Review of Psychology 68 (2017): 491–516.
Eli J. Finkel et al., “Self-Regulatory Failure and Intimate Partner Violence Perpetration,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 97 (2009): 483–99.
Scott Leibs, “Can You Reserve Judgment Until the 31st Minute?”, Inc., January 29, 2014, https://www.inc.com/the-build-network/can-you-reserve-judgment-until-the-31st-minute.html (accessed March 28, 2018).