Book Review: The End of Bias - How We Change Our Minds by Jessica Nordell

by @edent | , ,

Book cover for The End of Bias

Unconscious bias: persistent, unintentional prejudiced behaviour that clashes with our consciously held beliefs. We know that it exists, to corrosive and even lethal effect. We see it in medicine, the workplace, education, policing, and beyond. But when it comes to uprooting our prejudices, we still have far to go.

With nuance, compassion, and ten years' immersion in the topic, Jessica Nordell weaves gripping stories with scientific research to reveal how minds, hearts, and behaviours change. She scrutinizes diversity training, deployed across the land as a corrective but with inconsistent results. She explores what works and why: the diagnostic checklist used by doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital that eliminated disparate treatment of men and women; the preschool in Sweden where teachers found ingenious ways to uproot gender stereotyping; the police unit in Oregon where the practice of mindfulness and specialized training has coincided with a startling drop in the use of force.

One of the hardest things about being human is unlearning our base instincts. The survival strategies we needed as small tribes in a dangerous environment are rarely relevant in the modern world.

Bias exists. This books makes an excellent academic case for showing that bias is present in all of us - and that it is (mostly) no longer a useful heuristic. It meticulously chronicles the various experiments which have been undertaken to see where bias creeps in to the decision-making process. Perhaps this isn't surprising to you - but it is useful to have it spelled out so clearly.

What works to address bias? What's just snake oil? It's harder than you might think. Some promising studies can't be replicated - others get mired in controversy. And, worse still, some people don't want to change!

Can the USA's notoriously violent and racist police reduce their biases by meditating before a shift? It's the sort of thing which would generate eye-rolls from the commentariat and fierce resistance from the "noble warriors" themselves. And, yet, the evidence suggests that it works. Sure, you can't wipe out all the structural problems of law enforcement with a few deep breaths - but it appears to be a good start.

In tech, we know that fixing "the pipeline" isn't enough. We need to make concerted efforts to correct past mistakes. The story of how MIT increased its diversity (in one faculty, on one spectrum) is an excellent model about how leadership has to want to be better.

Finally, there's an interesting section on child rearing. Something of no interest to me - but fascinating to see what some people consider "indoctrination". How do you speak to the children around you? Do you intentionally reinforce gender stereotypes? Is that harmful?

As with many modern books about bias, it mostly looks at things through a North American lens. While I'm not claiming that Europe is free of bias, the problems we have often stem from a very different background than the USA. However, there are a couple of good sections about practical examples from European research.

At its heart is a plea to take this stuff seriously. Not just in an academic setting - but in every aspect of your life. Examine what weird little biases you have, work out where they came from, try to discard them if they do no good - and then hope that, together, we can change the world.

Thanks to NetGalley for the review copy. The book is released later this year.

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