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The Elusive Silver Cord: How Bias Depends on Context and State of Mind

May 9, 2017

"Bias is woven through culture like a silver cord woven through cloth. In some lights, it’s brightly visible. In others, it’s hard to distinguish. And your position relative to that glinting thread determines whether you see it at all." - Jessica Nordell

 

This is a wonderful way to think about bias.  We all have biases because we live in this culture; they are part of the fabric of our social world and they are not necessarily wrong or bad. But the expression of those biases can have consequences that are harmful and hurtful. Some people are not aware that biases impact their decisions and behaviors.  Others are acutely aware.  Just because you don't see the harsh metallic flash of bias happening all around you, does not mean it does not exist.

 

In her thoughtful and nuanced article in The Atlantic, author Jessica Nordell discusses trainings and workshops about these types of biases, called "implicit" or "unintentional" bias.  These trainings are "all the rage" but do they work? She argues that they can.  Awareness is the first step - you've got to see the silver thread before it can be plucked out of the cloth.  But researches and trainers must begin to track data so that the longer-term impact of the trainings can be evaluated.  Additionally, organizational and systematic change will be needed to augment individual dedication in order for real societal change to occur. 

 

 

Finally, Nordell offers an insightful commentary on the debate swirling around the Implicit Association Test or IAT.  The test was developed years ago by researchers at Harvard, UVA and University of Washington and purports to test one's level of implicit bias against certain groups.  It's available online and takes only a few minutes; millions of people have taken it.  Millions of words have been printed criticizing it, too. Nordell says this:

 

The IAT is only one of many tools for measuring implicit associations, and all these different tools tend to turn up the same results—the same preferences for certain social groups over others. There is something truly consistent and real there, these results suggest. Perhaps... what’s really going on is that implicit bias is more complex than these tools can fully handle. Implicit associations may not be the stable entities scientists and others have been imagining them to be. In fact, studies show that the specific associations that arise depend on a person’s context and state of mind.

 

Context and state of mind are determined by your race, gender, profession, location, emotional state, and other factors.  I see the bias - the silver cord is so obvious and bright--yet others do not see a thing.

 

 

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