Breaking the Bias Habit: An Evidence-Based Intervention in Duke's Biology Department

 October 31, 2018

Image of broken bias

Bias is a tricky thing to talk about. Very few of us want to define ourselves as people who are prejudiced or treat others unfairly. In academics especially, we strive to cultivate unbiased, empirical, and logical modes of thought and analysis as we seek truth in our fields of study.

Despite this, human psychology research shows that all of us, regardless of our best intentions, harbor biases in the way that we perceive and respond to individuals and situations. To name just a few examples relevant to research and teaching, bias has been shown to impact outcomes when we assess leadership ability, write letters of recommendation, peer-review papers, nominate and vote for award recipients, and evaluate the quality of instructors.

This divide between the way we see ourselves and the way that we actually act can make overcoming bias, or even just acknowledging it, difficult. How can we change for the better if we are not aware of what is causing our patterns of perception in the first place? To me, grappling with and trying to solve these problems is one of the most pressing tasks in higher education today, if we wish to foster an environment in which all students and researchers can pursue their curiosities freely, develop to their fullest potential, and deliver the greatest impacts back to society at large.

As if this were not already daunting enough, it turns out that many “bias-reducing” training initiatives can backfire; many such trainings are ineffectual at best, and have negative impacts at worst. So, what are we to do?  These difficult issues drive the research of Dr. Patricia Devine and Dr. William Cox, psychology researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Their work aims to understand how we develop stereotypes, and, more practically, how we can break them. Last spring, with support from The Graduate School’s Professional Development Grant, they visited the Duke University Biology Department to lead a workshop for graduate students, postdocs, faculty, and staff.


List of workshop goals

In this workshop, Devine and Cox model bias as a behavioral habit that can be broken. It turns out that traditional techniques that suppress stereotypes, emphasize “colorblindness,” or lead us to believe too strongly in our own objectivity will not do the trick. Instead, they recommend a variety of strategies ranging from individual behavioral shifts (e.g. stereotype replacement and perspective-taking) to institutional changes (e.g. committing to firm credentials prior to reviewing evaluative materials and modifying the environment to increase representation and reduce stereotyping).

For example, when grading student essays, I now take extra time to reflect on how my perspective influences the way I perceive the quality of a student’s work. For an opinion question, am I more likely to overlook grammatical mistakes or logical inconsistencies if the student is framing an argument with which I already agree? Conversely, with students whose opinions or experiences differ from mine (which is often), I try to imagine individual reasons why they might have arrived at their own unique perspectives, rather than relying on categorical explanations such as their race, gender, political leanings, etc. In addition to ensuring that I remain accountable for my unconscious biases, this opens up opportunities for me to connect more deeply with each individual student: a win-win scenario.


Image of Dr. Cox in workshop

These methods may seem deceptively simple, but they work: randomized control trials in different STEM departments at UW-Madison found notable increases in the rates at which women were hired if departments had hosted the habit-breaking workshop, while those that did not showed no change over time.

What is the takeaway for communities here at Duke? Many of the strategies that Devine and Cox outline in their workshop are personal, involving individual reflection and subtle shifts in patterns of thought and action. I find this empowering; it shows that we have the power to behave more equitably merely by raising our awareness about our own cognitive processes and taking simple steps to correct for them. Bias is a habit, and a near-universal one, but it can be broken. When coupled with institutional efforts such as deliberately increasing representation of underrepresented groups (e.g. in invited lectures and seminars) and setting clear objectives when hiring or otherwise evaluating others (e.g. creating and committing to rubrics), I hope to see continued shifts toward increased equity and representation at Duke, both within and beyond the Biology Department.


Devine and workshop



Image of Lauren Carley
Lauren Carley

Ph.D. candidate, Ecology

Lauren Carley is a Ph.D. candidate in the Duke University Program in Ecology. She studies how ecological interactions influence the evolution of biodiversity: specifically, diverse plant traits and the genes that underlie them. In addition, she also spends a fair amount of time thinking about human diversity within science (and beyond), and how we can work to promote, maintain, and increase it.