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June 2015
Dean Andy Boynton

Reading list

By Dean Andy Boynton


Few people—especially, I would think, those of us in higher education—would acknowledge harboring an irrational bias. But in Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Lives, Howard J. Ross makes a convincing case that biases and blind spots are part of being human. The challenge is to recognize them.

One of the nation’s leading diversity consultants, Ross probes issues such as race and gender in his cogent book, published last fall by Rowman & Littlefield. But he explores less familiar forms of bias as well, citing a number of studies as well as his own research experiments.

  • Physicians at the University of Toronto’s medical school discovered that prospective students interviewed on rainy days received lower overall ratings than those interviewed on sunny days. Even after controlling for factors such as academic qualifications, race, and gender, a five-year study of nearly 3,000 candidates for admission to the medical school showed that the “weather effect” was significant. Students whose admissions interviews fell on rainy days might as well have scored 10 points lower on the Medical College Admission Tests (MCATs), the authors found.
  • Psychologists at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom learned that in-store music selections can affect the kind of wine supermarket shoppers buy. After stocking an experimental supermarket shelf with French and German wines that were comparable in cost, quality, and sweetness, the researchers played recordings of traditional French (accordion) music and old-style German (oompah) music on alternate days over a two-week period. On French music days, three-quarters of the wine sold was French. On German days, shoppers bought German wine by the same three-to-one margin.

In one of his own experiments, Ross shows an audience a picture of a splendid vacation destination. He then asks those on one side of the audience to close their eyes while he displays a graphic showing the trip’s amenities along with its price tag—$4,995. Next, he invites the first group to open their eyes and the rest to close theirs. He displays the same graphic but with a strikingly lower price tag—$49.95 per night. Without fail, the group that saw the higher price point is “willing to pay far more” than the group that didn't.

Ross points to a growing consensus among psychologists and other researchers that bias is ubiquitous in our daily lives. And nearly all of it is unconscious, these experts maintain. Among 50 shoppers interviewed after they bought either French or German wine, only a handful said they had noticed the background music they heard while scanning selections, for example.

The author advises individuals and organizations to “recognize that bias is a normal part of the human experience”—one that will lurk behind almost every organizational decision made.

The last couple of chapters of Everyday Bias are devoted not to eliminating bias (which Ross believes is impossible) but to turning a flashlight on this human trait. He suggests that we develop “the capacity for self-observation” (noticing our own reactions, interpretations, and judgments), and that we practice “constructive uncertainty” (recognizing that other reactions, interpretations, and judgments may be valid). The goal is to make ourselves more aware of our “unconscious judgments.”

As humans, we have a powerful bias toward what we already think and know. That’s why the liberal arts are an important part of almost any top-quality undergraduate education. A well-rounded higher education can expand the lives of young men and women as they discover that hard-held opinions are open to questions and multiple interpretations. At the Carroll School, we have instituted a number of changes in our Core Curriculum that make it far easier for students to embrace the liberal arts as well as their management concentration. As they pursue majors and minors in the arts and sciences, they develop the habit of working with new and different ideas.

In the fall, every Carroll School freshman also takes the required Portico course, which delves deeply into business, ethics, and the liberal arts. This distinctive three-credit course includes regular small-group reflection sessions in which students explicitly connect their studies with their lives, choices, and callings. They are examining their biases and other preconceptions, practically from the moment they enter college.