The Invisible Forces that Shape Our Prejudices


"For me it is clear, all societies will be multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural in the future."

 Antonio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees

This is a statement Guterres recently made during a talk with TED Global’s Bruno Giussani in relation to the refugee challenges that currently exist across the world, particularly in Europe. And he is far from the first person to say it. Guterres convincingly argues that this tendency towards diversity is inevitable, and that any efforts to slow down or prevent it would actually do more damage than good. He offers Donald Trump’s idea of closing the United States’ doors to Muslim refugees as an example. Now, apart from the moral, ethical and reputational implications of this, Guterres also argues that this sort of strategy could result in a more threatening situation for the US; it creates the best kind of propaganda for terrorist organizations to fuel their narratives and grow their numbers. It might even turn those within the US who were ‘on the fence’ or indifferent into ardent believers who, because of their citizenship, would be very hard to identify.

The opportunity to be leaders

As right as Guterres is, it is time to move past discussing whether or not diversity is ‘good’ for a society. Diversity is part of any society, for better or worse. Rather, we need to see it as the inevitability that it is and focus on how we can create societies where people of different backgrounds, cultures, races and religions can peacefully, happily and successfully cooperate in all walks of life.

Maps of prejudice
Maps of prejudice

With this challenge in mind I look to my home country, South Africa, which falls in the top ten most ethnically diverse countries in the world. This, admittedly, is not without its challenges, but if we believe Guterres and others are right then this places a massive responsibility on us South Africans. We are years ahead of the ‘developed’ world from a diversity perspective, and therefore these countries will be, or at least should be, looking to learn from us as they begin to become more diverse over the coming years. Will we be able to provide the right answers?

More than anywhere else at the moment, SA is experiencing the pressures of diversity and the inherent challenges that it creates - conflict, conscious discrimination and explicit criticism. These are such massive problems that it is often hard to know where to begin…

Where to start?

Why not with the most obvious: explicit criticism and conscious, overt discrimination. A lot of work is already being done to tackle these problems, however perhaps an even more important place to start is with our underlying implicit judgments and how these create negative unconscious biases towards others.

Unlike more deliberate acts of conscious discrimination which can most often be controlled and avoided by the individual, the danger with unconscious bias is that we usually aren’t even aware that it is occurring. We can have unconscious, habituated, learned responses and ideas of what someone else, or a particular race or gender is like – and reflect this – even though it is in direct contradiction to what we rationally, really think, feel and believe. Without this awareness, we are unable to alter any harmful prejudice that we might have developed via the experiences and cultural narratives that we have been exposed to growing up through our friends, family, teachers or the media.

The implicit, unconscious nature of this type of prejudice means we have to think very carefully about how we deal with it. To this, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a popular impresario of unconscious bias, offers a valuable suggestion:

“Bias is not an accusation, rather it is something that has to be identified, acknowledged and mitigated against.”

This is useful because it brings an important idea into the conversation - the idea that we often make judgements about people without being aware of why or how we are making them, as well as all of the other subjective decisions that relate to and stem from this.

Have a look at this riddle

A man and his son are driving in a car one day, when they get into a fatal accident. The man is killed instantly. The boy is knocked unconscious but he is still alive. He is rushed to hospital and will need immediate surgery. The surgeon enters the emergency room, looks at the boy and says…

“I can’t operate on this boy, he is my son”

How is this possible?


I’ve given this riddle to many friends, family members and colleagues - including some of the most open-minded people that I know - however all produced similar biased responses; “the father wasn’t really dead”, “there must be two fathers”, “the boy was adopted”. Granted some of these have logic behind them but essentially, as often happens with prejudice, the most obvious answer just didn’t come to mind. - The surgeon is the boy’s mother.

When I made everyone I asked, aware of this blind-spot, both men and women responded with embarrassment and self-criticism. They don’t believe that women can’t be surgeons, and they don’t believe they just can’t see the obvious answer. However, importantly, as Abdel-Magied and others argue this isn’t their fault; they shouldn’t be held to any sort of immediate accusation here. Their response was simply the product of deeply implicit generalizations and associations between gender and different roles in society. It’s a complicated idea, let’s explore it further:

Gender behind the Screen

A classic example of how these biases exist in society can be seen in the recent history of recruitment for orchestras. As recently as the 1970’s the top orchestras in the US had fewer than 5% women. By the 1990’s this was up to 25% and today it is closer to 30%. The intuitive assumption for such a dramatic change in dynamics is some sort of equally significant cause, however this was not the case. The shift was largely attributed to the introduction of blind auditions!

Some orchestras just ‘go blind’ for the preliminary round, while others are all the way through the hiring process. Although full process blind auditions are the ideal, they often aren’t practical. Fortunately researchers have found that even when blind auditions are only used for the preliminary round there is a remarkable impact; blind auditions increase the probability of women advancing to the subsequent round by 50%, and also dramatically increase the amount of women being hired.

More interesting still, although the screen increases the chances of the female musicians advancing to the next round, these affects can be undone if the women is wearing high heels. The sound of their heels is a dead give-away for the judges and has been shown to significantly lower their chances of successful advancement. Female musicians are now recommended not to wear heels to their auditions and if even they do, facilitators instruct them to take the shoes off before they walk behind the screen.

The solution adopted by US orchestras offers us a nice example of Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s ‘identify, acknowledge, mitigate against’ strategy. Its shows that if we can anticipate judgements that play host to unconscious bias, we can develop contextual filtering systems that allow us to make fairer and more accurate judgements instead.

This strategy is a useful fix, but is this the best we can do? What about the countless subtle judgements that we make on a day-to-day basis? In these situations we aren’t even likely to anticipate the moments where there is negative implicit prejudice, let alone design specific contextual filtering systems for all of them.

To add further fuel to the fire, it is often the most subtle interactions that we frequently engage in that have the largest effect.

A nice example of this in the field comes from a study done by Dolly Chugh and colleagues around the effects of racial prejudice in PHD programmes. Chugh sent emails to more than 6500 randomly selected professors from 259 American universities. Each email was from a fictional ‘out-of-town’ student expressing interest in the professors PHD program and seeking guidance. The subject line of the email, body copy and sign off was all the same; the only variation was the name of the student sender, which was chosen based on prior research around stereotypical black, white, Hispanic, Indian and Chinese student names. Examples include – Lamar Washington (black), Meredith Roberts (white), Juanita Martinez (Hispanic), Raj Singh (Indian) and Chang Huang (Chinese).

The results showed that although there was a good response rate, professors were more responsive to white male names than to female, black, Hispanic, Indian or Chinese students in almost every discipline across universities, across America. Interestingly, private universities had the worst response discrimination, especially (and slightly ironically) in the Chugh’s  own department (business) which showed a 87% response rate to white males compared to 62% response rate to all female and other racial groups combined.

These sorts of unanticipated, subtle biases that hide in the shadows of our everyday judgements are a critical area of concern that needs to be thought about. Moreover, they need to be thought about differently to the larger more infrequent judgements where bias is much more obvious and the capacity for intervention more readily available.

So, what can be done?

One way is to design experiences that allow people to deeply empathize, disrupting existing preconceptions in the process. A great example of this is Jane Elliott's famous brown eyes versus blue eyes experiment.


In posts to follow this I'll explore the use of empathy to combat prejudice, as well as other approaches such as psycho-cyberneticsandgrowth mindset development.

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