You will never be bias-free

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Biases aren’t like gluten. They can’t be extracted and trashed. In a way, it’s a positive. More than the negatives that tend to surround a bias.

All biases are bad”, “We should always be rational and impartial”, “Biases are proof of someone’s ignorance”. In different ways, biases don’t let anyone being indifferent. Often times, it’s some sort of injustice or imbalance that make us say “that person/these people are biased”.

The police, they are biased against _____ (fill in the blank) because _____ (fill in this other blank)”, “The journalists, they are biased against _____”, “My boss is always biased when it’s time to decide who gets a promotion or a bonus”, “Charlene is so biased. She only thinks _____ makes the best handbags.”

ALWAYS PRESSING THE BALANCE DOWN ON THE SAME SIDE?

Are biases always pressing the balance down on the same side, the negative one? Are they always breaking people apart or putting them one against another? Not really. Some biases actually prove themselves to be very useful, in everyday life.

Even more when you’re struggling to find a workplace where you can do your best work.

You don’t have to “Go out in the World with an open heart, judgment free, and embrace all people coming your way” to achieve your goal. The same to pull some benefits out from biases. You don’t have to go “full rational” or “calculated” neither.

Because biases have nothing to do really with “rational”. They’re the opposite; rooted in emotions. As a bias is a preference, an inclination for someone or towards something over something else.

Like having a preference for healthy foods over junk foods. For tea over coffee. Having a preference for latte over espresso. Or for only hiring people with a college degree over people with no college degree but extensive field experience. Even if, in a given situation, past experiences make it obvious that someone with practical skills tends to perform better and stay longer in that one position to be filled than someone only with “theoretical knowledge” (e.g. a new graduate).

Preferences and inclinations make biases something unfair. Potential time-bombs. If not handled carefully.

Betting on artificial intelligence to strip biases away from all decision making processes in companies – so no potential source of conflicts ever surface – is not the best of strategies neither. Why? For the human factor still behind most AIs these days. That factor being, in part, the programmers.

A shortcoming ProPublica’s journalists, among others, have exposed these past months. In part, ProPublica did so with an article on criminal sentencing in the US and the use of AIs by different courtrooms to help predict the risk of future crime from defendants. [You can read about it here . You can also access ProPublica’s whole series on Machine Bias in different parts of the American economy here ]

At the core of what journalists have uncovered is the fact that “how we see the World” has a direct influence on how we interact with other people, on the decisions we make and the actions we take too.

It does so, not only in a negative way. In a positive one too. How?

WHEN WE’RE LOOKING FOR A MATCH

When choosing who we want to spend time with. In setting what we value as “being more important”. Or when deciding what we want to put time on, for instance.

Most things it seems we all do on a regular basis.

Biases get interesting when you look at the actual choices people make.

Put two motorcycle riders together. Chances are their choice of bikes will be different.

Those who ride Harley Davidson do so because they see their motorcycle as some sort of gateway to freedom. Even if any motorcycle provides the freedom to go from A to B. Even if other brands of motorcycles have proved to be more reliable (mechanically speaking) than Harley Davidson in the past. People with a preference for sports or performance motorcycles – like Ducati or Buell – see their motorcycle differently than HD riders too.

Both groups will agree, though, that riding a motorcycle provides “more _____ (freedom, adrenaline, fun)” than driving a car.

The same apply to computer buyers.

Many Apple products’ fans see their computer as a mean to challenge the status quo. They would never consider buying a PC – like a Dell. Even if, in terms of components and overall performances, most computer brands (Apple included) offer similar products these days. People buying a Dell, a Lenovo or else usually don’t consider buying an Apple. Because, even if they want to kick the status quo in the butt too, Apple computers don’t match their “worldview”.

Yet, both groups of computer users would probably agree that using their machine to have an impact in society through coding software or building websites is more efficient than organizing walks, sit-ins or chain letters for instance.

Something that “matches our worldview”. That’s the core of positive biases. Ones that tend to bring people together.

Opposite to negative ones; biases that exclude people from a group, or bring a group apart.

The Brexit and the foundation of the Tea Party (in the United States) are recent examples of large group who were broken apart; those who supported a United Europe and the (American) republicans.

Coming back to ProPublica’s investigation, what became a source of conflicts in US courtrooms is the fact that some defendants were excluded from “those receiving a fair assessment of their risk of future crime” based on their race. “African American” pushed the balance down on the negative side more often than “White American”. Because of the heavier weight “African American” was given by the people who programmed the element of race in the risk assessment equation. So, if the defendant was African American, odds were higher for him to be told “represents a higher risk of future crime” than a White defendant with similar “criminal + personal history backgrounds”.

That “difference in weight” represents an inclination. A bias.

ONE WAY TO GET THE MOST OF A “BIASES-INCLUDED” REALITY

You’ll never be bias-free. Neither will I.

Nor will a workplace be bias-free.

What can you do about it then? To get the most out of this reality? And find that place where to do your best work, while being yourself?

Define your preferences. Be clear about your biases.

Not in a way to push people away, or break groups of people apart.

But to actually help you find those who share your worldview. About music, work, relationships, or else.

To help you discover other people’s worldview too. And maybe find in theirs something you never thought you had in common.

Because in the end, doing our best work doesn’t come down only to how good we get at completing some task. But at how well the people we work with support us while we make the decisions, take the risks, collect the failures and get the leverage we need to actually succeed at what we do.

How much support can you get from people you can’t see eye to eye with? Or feel are on a different planet than yours?

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Photo credits: Hoops&Yooyo

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