Bias and Comfort Zones

Whether it is the intentional racist comments from a celebrity, applying a nasty epithet to a sitting politician, or the active discrimination towards gender, society is quick to condemn the perpetrators. Publicly, overt racism and discrimination has no place in today’s world, despite what we are seeing from some individuals these days. However, is there a more persistent bias running “under the radar” about which we are unaware?

University of Washington professor of psychology, Anthony Greenwald, says there is, and it is not so much “against” another group, but an unconscious favoring of the familiar. Greenwald and his associates developed the Implicit Association Test (IAT) in 1995, and their initial findings were first published in 1998. Since that time, the test has been expanded to cover several different types of bias and undergone rigorous study to check for validity.

The IAT measures the strength of an individual’s automatic association with objects and concepts. In other words, it relies on automatic reactions, on the subconscious (or unconscious) level, based on our memories. It is more reaction without thought, than conscious decision-making. The result is a kind of discrimination without the overt intent to do harm, except that it does cause harm when practiced by a dominant group.

A comfort zone, by definition, is where the world feels familiar to us. We have a lot of comfort zones, depending upon the subject at hand. We have a tendency to think that comfort zones are wonderful, because we feel safe. Our comfort zones are based on who we believe we are, and that belief is stored in our subconscious. We make all of our decisions, conscious or unconscious, based on that picture of who we believe we are. We look for others who are similar to us, to join us in our comfort zones.

It isn’t just individuals who search and find the familiar. Organizations have comfort zones, which leads to stagnation of innovation. A lack of diversity of thought and experience causes institutional favoring of the familiar, more commonly known as a blind spot or scotoma. And scotomas cause us to miss options and opportunities.

The cure? Self-reflection, individual and organizational, and a transformation of that internal picture of who we are which, someday, will do away with negative automatic responses.