Leadership

Nobody makes decisions in a vacuum. Our brains are constantly taking mental shortcuts—for better or worse—to help us choose between options. These shortcuts are known as biases. In biological terms, bias is a typical part of being human. If you have a brain you are biased. Biases help us get through the day without having to gather every bit of information for every decision we have to make, such as where to turn on the road to get home from work. The more expert we are at something, the more we can rely on our biases.

Because our brains are constantly taking mental shortcuts, and because these biases are mostly invisible to us, we need to be concerned with how they individually and institutionally influence decisions and choices we make in our early childhood systems. Experts on the study of race and ethnicity use the term implicit bias to describe the beliefs and societal messages we carry without awareness or conscious direction which are interwoven with our evolutionary biases. The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity defines implicit bias as follows:

The attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. Activated involuntarily, without awareness or intentional control. This can be either positive or negative. Everyone is susceptible.[14]

These biases can work toward our benefit (for example, survival, ease of life), and they can create harmful effects (for example, creating inequities and stopping us from considering a range of options) from our behavior and choices. It’s not humanly possible to be aware of our unconscious brain activity in the moments that we are making choices or decisions. It is up to us as leaders to rethink our organizational processes that guide decision-making so that we can begin to mitigate our invisible biases. That way, we create a more equitable early childhood system.

Promote Equity

Promoting equity can help eliminate disparities that negatively affect groups of people who have systematically experienced greater obstacles to participating in quality early learning experiences.[15]. Creating equitable learning opportunities for young children is at the core of how we lead in our field in the 21st century. These opportunities help children thrive by recognizing and building on each child’s unique set of individual and family strengths, cultural background, home language, abilities, and experiences. Recent figures show that 45 percent of all young children from birth to age four in the United States are children of color, and the diversity of young children continues to grow. One in five young children today is learning a home language and English simultaneously. Designing an early childhood system that is responsive to the needs of all children is key to both these children’s future and the nation’s future[16]. However, we know that we have a lot of gaps in our systems (for example, cultural awareness gaps, access gaps, participation gaps, workforce diversity gaps). Closing all of these gaps requires explicit planning, including using the SEEDS Model to mitigate bias in decision-making processes. Doing so requires constructing decision-making processes that include individuals who have different cultural, linguistic, and ethnic backgrounds to contribute their expertise to this learning. This may even mean adapting decision-making approaches to recognize that different cultures approach decision-making differently—in terms of consensual versus majority rule, time allotments for discussion and planning, and ways of establishing trust and a sense of shared experience across groups. Both process and product are important in both developing early childhood systems that respond to the diversity of the young child population and addressing structural inequities.[17]

What’s Happening in Our Brain Unconsciously?

“The challenging news from the science is that even well-intentioned individuals have biases that can impact their perceptions and behavior—producing discriminatory behavior. The good news from the science is that individuals, once educated on the science of implicit bias, can develop strategies and processes to intentionally impact those biases.”.

—Cheryl Staats et al., The State of Science: Implicit Bias Review[15]

From a neuroscience point of view, our brains make sense of the world by categorizing things. Additionally, our brains create stronger associations towards certain things than others. For example, similarity bias makes us think that “people like me are better than others,” and distance bias has people believing that “closer things are better than ones that are distant.[19]” Scientists have identified over 150 different types of biases—many that are unconscious. The challenge with our brains is that we can’t just take an unconscious thing and make it conscious. It’s not possible to be aware of unconscious processes in the moments that we make choices or decisions. It’s a different way of processing things in your brain. People have known about these kinds of unconscious biases for a long time, and awareness of them hasn’t led to better decision-making. Awareness and education only go so far, but awareness can help you understand the ways you’ve been biased in the past and the ways that you might be again in the future.

Knowing about Bias Isn’t Enough
 

“Neuroscience does not provide an excuse to continue to have and act on our biases. Instead, it reveals those biases and removes our ability to deny the biological tendencies of our unconscious mind.”

—Cheryl Staats et al., The State of Science: Implicit Bias Review[17]

Cognitive neuroscience has shown that knowing we have a bias isn’t enough. While raising awareness can help us realize that we might be biased, it does not enable us to recognize bias in our own thinking—we simply do not have conscious access to the inner workings of bias in the brain. We can’t entirely get rid of these biases, but we can mitigate the impact they have on the choices we make. We can do this by preparing, in advance, for decisions where a bias might come into play. For example, in decisions about choosing who to promote to a management role, we know that similarity bias—that people similar to us are better—comes into play. By looking at commonalities and how we’re similar to each candidate, we can mitigate that unconscious bias. The trick is that we must do this ahead of the decision, which means knowing what types of decisions might invoke unconscious biases. Changing the context surrounding the decision and preparing ahead of time for challenging decisions are critical. The most effective strategy for mitigating bias is focusing on changing processes, not just making individuals aware of biases. To tackle the effects of unconscious bias, we really have to have a systems approach—we need to look at the whole decision-making process used by our teams, organizations, and systems. We can set up systems and processes for gathering all the information we need, and we can ensure certain steps are followed in our processes before making a decision. Individuals and teams can certainly work to mitigate bias, but the impact is much greater if an entire division, organization, or system is on board.

Breaking Bias: The SEEDS Model

The SEEDS model proposes an alternative solution to mitigating bias, derived from a brain-based perspective. The SEEDS model identifies processes that can interrupt and redirect unconsciously biased thinking. Practice with this model can help guide your use of such processes. The SEEDS model simplifies the roughly 150 identified cognitive biases and recognizes five categories of bias, each of which responds to a different set of actions that will help mitigate the bias. Use the SEEDS model by following three steps, excerpted below:

  1. Accept that we are biased by virtue of our biology. People and systems are deeply biased and don’t know it.
  2. Label the types of bias that are likely to occur in any system or might influence a particular decision, using the SEEDS model.
  3. Mitigate bias by using strategies that go directly to the core processes underpinning the bias.[21]

Table 2. SEEDS Model

Five Categories of Bias

What It Looks Like

How to Mitigate the Bias

Similarity:

  • People like me are better
  • “The mirror”
  • In-group and out-group bias

Involves more positively evaluating people who are similar to us or who share similar goals; perceiving people who are different from us more negatively; common in decisions about people

Find ways to acknowledge the similarities that exist between you and others; remove identifying and potentially biasing information from materials that go into the decision-making process

Expedience:

  • If it feels familiar and easy it must be true
  • “The time machine”
  • Confirmation bias

Can occur in everyday decisions that involve complex calculations, analysis, evaluation, or identifying conclusions out of data

Slow down the process, mentally stop, and involve others in the decision

Experience:

  • My perceptions are accurate
  • “The know-it-all”
  • False consensus effect

Can occur anytime we fail to see that things may not be the way they seem and in any situation in which we fail to appreciate other people’s perspectives

Seek objective outside opinions from those not involved in the project or team; revisit ideas after a break, look at yourself and your message through other people’s eyes

Distance:

  • Closer is better than distant
  • “The family circle”

Involves focusing on short-term (here and now) thinking rather than long-term investment

Take distance out of the equation; evaluate the outcomes or resources as if they were equally close to you in distance, time, or ownership

Safety:

  • Bad is stronger than good
  • “The protector”
  • Loss aversion

Can occur any time we make decisions about the probability of risk or return

Imagine you are making the decision for someone else

Why Is It So Hard to Accept That Our Actions, Behaviors and Decisions Are Influenced by Bias?

Resistance to our own susceptibility to bias, paired with the unconscious nature of cognitive bias, creates a perfect storm in which bias is perpetuated and rarely recognized or adequately managed. So, why is it so hard to do this? In part, this is because it feels good to be right, and it feels bad to be wrong. Being right activates the brain’s reward circuitry.[22] From our brain’s perspective, being correct is associated with contentment and certainty. Being wrong activates the regions of the brain that are associated with processing pain and negative emotion (even when there are no material consequences of being wrong.)[23]

 

[13] Lieberman, M. D., Rock, D., Grant Halvorson, H., & Cox, C. (2015). Breaking bias updated: The SEEDS model. NeuroLeadership Journal, http://www.scn.ucla.edu/pdf/Lieberman(2015)Neuroleadership.pdf

[14] Staats, C., Capatosto, K., Tenney, L., & Mamo, S. (2017). The state of science. Implicit bias review, P.X  Kirwan Institute on Race and Ethnicity. P.10

[15] National Association for the Education of Young Children. (2019). Leading with equity: Early childhood leaders make it personal. https://www.naeyc.org/sites/default/files/globally-shared/downloads/PDFs/our-work/initiatives/equity_summit_final.pdf

[16] BUILD Initiative. Building early childhood systems in a multi-ethnic society: An overview of BUILD’s briefs on diversity and equity. http://www.buildinitiative.org/Portals/0/Uploads/Documents/BuildingEarlyChildhoodSystemsinaMultiEthnicSociety.pdf

[17] See footnote 13.

[18] See footnote 11.

[19] Lieberman, M. D., Rock, D., Grant Halvorson, H., & Cox, C. (2015). Breaking bias updated: The SEEDS model. NeuroLeadership Journalhttp://www.scn.ucla.edu/pdf/Lieberman(2015)Neuroleadership.pdf

[20] Staats, C., Capatosto, K., Tenney, L., &  Mamo, S. (2017). The state of science. Implicit bias review.  Kirwan Institute on Race and Ethnicity.

[21] Lieberman, M. D., Rock, D., Grant Halvorson, H., & Cox, C. (2015). Breaking bias updated: The SEEDS model. Retrieved from http://www.scn.ucla.edu/pdf/Lieberman(2015)Neuroleadership.pdf.

[22] Lieberman, M. (2007). Social cognitive neuroscience: A review of core processes. http://www.scn.ucla.edu/pdf/Lieberman%20(2006)%20Ann%20Review.pdf.

[23] See foonote 19.