Prejudices lead us to exclude those people who do not fit into our mental scheme. But more and more companies are trying to combat them by training their employees to learn how to eliminate them from their decisions.
Do you trust the people of Madrid more than the Catalans, or vice versa? Would you give a job sooner to a thin person than to an overweight one? Are you clear on the answers? Let’s face it: we are subjective. We can fill ourselves with a thousand and one justifications, but in reality most of the time we are moved by unconscious criteria. Such biases cause us to make unfounded decisions – such as considering men to be more qualified than women for managerial positions or rejecting someone because of his or her sexual status – which is quite dangerous for the individual in particular, and for society in general. Prejudices lead us to exclude other people simply because they are different, because they do not fit into our schemes. Scientific psychology stresses the importance of understanding the differences between what you say and what you really think, and in recent years, researchers and companies have promoted projects to raise awareness of the value of difference.
One of the pioneers was Project Implicit, an initiative developed by psychologists from prestigious universities such as Harvard, which has one of the most curious tests on biases. It allows us to find out, in less than 10 minutes, if we have certain preferences regarding gender, race, country, weight and age -by the way, it is free and available in Spanish-. Project Implicit was born with an ambitious goal: “To reduce any discrimination,” explains researcher Gabriel Dorantes, head of the Hispanic branch of this laboratory of ideas. Our ancestors needed to react quickly to the danger of the unknown.
Prejudice has a biological origin: we need speed to react to danger. Our ancestors had to do it quickly and without time for reflection. His thinking could be summarized as follows: predator=danger=run. Although we do not now live with wild animals, the mechanism of rapid association is still activated by the fear of the unknown, which causes us to marginalize others because of their different appearance. Moreover, the greater our lack of knowledge, the greater the biases, and before we rush to generalize, we must be aware that we only know a minimal part of reality. If our mind were a computer, we could say that the unconscious is capable of processing the information it picks up through the senses at a speed of 11 million bits per second. However, its conscious capacity only processes 40 bits at a time, which means that it loses 99.9% of the information it receives.
Arbitrary thoughts are also at work, both in deciding who to promote and what product to bring to market. To help its employees understand and manage biases, Google launched internal training for the entire workforce in 2013 to “help them reflect on their biases and convince them of the richness that diversity and heterogeneity bring,” says Javier Martín, regional HR director at the Mountain View company. Vodafone Spain is another example. For the past few months, managers have been receiving training to learn how to avoid these preferences and, consequently, make more consistent decisions.
In short, prejudices can play tricks on us because they prevent us from appreciating the value of difference. But to the extent that we know how to recognize them and develop more empathetic attitudes, we will be able to cushion their effects. It is possible and worthwhile for justice, respect and personal growth.