Listen: Martijn Van Der Kamp in conversation with Stephen O’Doherty.
It probably comes as no surprise that we find it easier to agree with something that aligns with our values and beliefs than to something that does not, regardless of whether it’s right or not. Because we better understand information that aligns with our values and beliefs, it’s also easier to recall or interpret such information.
Researchers refer to this phenomenon as ‘confirmation bias’. When asked to draw an ‘effective leader’, most people will draw a man. We perpetuate the idea of effective leaders being men after being trained by many images of male leaders in movies, advertising and elsewhere. Google for a long time portrayed men in 77 per cent of its Doodles until it recognised this bias and purposefully changed it to represent males and females equally in 2014.
If you only have a hammer, everything is a nail
Martijn Van Der Kamp is a Teaching Fellow at the Monash Business School. He has spent a lot of time researching and understanding the part bias playes in our lives. It is important to be aware of bias as it has a significant effect on business decisions, how well teams work together and on daily life.
Dr Van der kamp says we need to acknowledge everyone has bias and be aware of it. Those pre-conditioned responses are helpful to help us negotiate life and define who we are. In fact, we can’t do without them – it is basic to who we are and how we think and interact. However, some people become so one eyed that they can’t even consider different views.
Engineers will try to engineer their way out of every problem
“Because we hold them so close, we feel an emotional or negative response. We have automatic judgements that devalue people who hold opposite views.” he says
“Abraham Maslow, a psychologist and management guru, said: “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” Which means that you approach controversial issues with your unique values, beliefs, and skills – your hammer.” says Van Der Kamp.
“In other words, people trained as, for example, engineers will try to engineer their way out of every problem because they are familiar and comfortable with the beliefs and assumptions of that skill set.” he says.
Changing belief is changing ourselves
What’s the point of bias anyway?
While bias is an unconscious shortcut we use to navigate our daily social interactions and can be helpful to us, there are negatives too, says Van der Kamp “Big issues become controversial because they touch on our deepest values and beliefs, regardless of whether we’re for or against, or what is right or wrong.” he says.
It is as if hearing an opposing view, no matter how well articulated, or how objectively true, has the effect of making us cling more to what we think. “It makes us want to hang on to our beliefs more strongly, because changing these beliefs would be changing ourselves. Big issues become controversial because they touch on our deepest values and beliefs, regardless of whether we’re for or against, or what is right or wrong.”
How can they possibly think that!
“It becomes an ‘us-versus-them’ situation, as we start to stereotype ‘them’ as a group – left activists, climate deniers, Muslims, Aboriginals. We denounce their values and look down on them. How could they possibly think X or believe Y!” says Martijn Van der Kamp.
Revealing bias and responding differently
Discover your biases by taking Harvard University’s Implicit Association tests. It can help you identify your biases related to skin tone, religion, age, weight, sexuality, disability and many more.
Many organisations have bias trainings; Google makes the company’s training publicly available.
“Every day, women, Aboriginals, the homeless, refugees, and other groups are excluded from larger society as a result of unconscious biases. We can’t get rid of bias but can we be more aware of it in ourselves and others.” says Martijn Van der Kamp.