You’re biased, but maybe not on purpose
Unless you are an overt bigot (racist, sexist, etc.), you would probably deny that you are biased. You probably think you are fair when it comes to decisions like electing your school governing body, choosing who to appoint in a job, picking someone for a promotion, choosing who to do business with, etc. The bad news is that you are probably not – you more than likely suffer from familiarity bias. The good news is that once you are aware of it, you can do something about it.
Be honest with yourself, who are the people that you freely associate with? Are most of them like you? Do you speak the same language, did you go to the same school, do you go to the same church/mosque/synagogue, do you support the same sports teams, do you look the same? Although there will be exceptions, in most cases people associate with people who are similar to them. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily – freedom of association is enshrined in most modern democratic and legal systems, including the US Bill of Rights and the SA Constitution. However, what happens if your preferences insofar as who you associate with start impacting the decisions you make outside your family and circle of friends? This can lead to familiarity bias – making decisions and choices in favour of what is familiar to you rather than what is deserved, logical or right.
Familiar bias is a particular problem when it comes situations where certain groups are in power (whether it be political, in business or in societies) and outside groups find it difficult to progress as a result of it. Notable examples are glass ceilings that women have and continue to face in the workplace, lack of representation in company management, exclusivity of sports clubs, onerous rules by body corporates and favouritism when it comes to government tenders and appointments.
To illustrate, please put yourself in the following position. You are the manager of a group of employees at a large firm. They are a mixed bunch, coming from different backgrounds. At work, you maintain a professional relationship and you even socialise on occasion (e.g. year-end lunch). However, you get along better with some of your colleagues, maybe you visit each other’s houses, maybe you play sport together, maybe you see them at church, maybe your children go to the same schools. You just like certain of you colleagues more than others, they think like you, you trust them more, you feel more comfortable with them. You now have to promote someone in your team and there are a number of candidates, some in your circle of friends and some not. If there are no rules guiding the promotion process, if there is no-one looking over your shoulder, who are you going to promote if you are faced with candidates who have similar qualifications and talents? Will it be the candidate that you like more and feel more comfortable with or will it be another candidate? The honest answer, more often than not would be the former. That is familiarity bias.
The problem with a situation like this is that it is very difficult for people who fall outside the familiar group to move into positions of responsibility, unless there are processes in place to encourage this. Women, regardless of background can attest to this. It is only in the past 50 years that women have really started come into their own in the workplace in most developed countries. It was a long and arduous process to break into the “boys club” and in many cases, this is still an ongoing battle.
In SA, our problem is more unique. We come from a history of institutionalised discrimination. Prior to the 1990s, limits were placed on who could be employed, who you could do business with and even who you could associate with. White South Africans were institutionally favoured over other population groups and by the time the situation changed, they were in a position of huge advantage. When majority rule commenced in SA, the government was faced with the choice of aggressively redistributing wealth through nationalisation, land repossession and penal taxation or using a more gradual market-friendly approach. Although it had a mandate to proceed with the former (with the Freedom Charter clearly stating that “The national wealth of our country, the heritage of South Africans, shall be restored to the people”), it chose the latter approach.
This gradual approach used various mechanisms, including employment practices within the public sector, government appointments, government tenders, black economic empowerment (BEE) and affirmative action (AA). There can be arguments made for the success achieved to date with these programmes and there can be arguments made that in certain cases, the wheel may have turned too far. Either way, we still have a very unequal society in SA, with most of the wealth and economic power in the hands of the previously advantaged and most of the political power in the hands of the previously disadvantaged.
An important element of transformation in SA that has been largely ignored by the policies that have been pursued is that of familiarity bias. People are more likely to embrace transformation and address issues within their control if they believe in the process and do not feel pressurised into it. It is important to change people’s minds. It is important that people look inward, address their own familiarity biases and actively try to keep them in check. People should be encouraged to be fair in the decisions that they make and not be driven by familiarity bias or adverse reactions to policies.
That may be easier said than done. On the one hand, there are many previously advantaged people that believe the process has gone too far and as a result, it has become very difficult for people from such a background to gain employment and promotions in both the public and private sector. On the other hand, there are many people in Government that believe they have the right and mandate to employ cadres in senior positions, even if better candidates are available and delivery suffers.
These views on both sides of the coin results in familiarity bias continuing unchecked. In the private sector, companies continue to do business with people they know, like and trust. Promotions (especially at senior levels) still accrue proportionally more to white males than any other grouping. In the public sector, senior appointments and promotions of individuals who do not have struggle credentials or party affiliation are less likely to happen than for those that do. Black kids are still often made to feel uncomfortable if they are outnumbered at school and vice versa. Non-white families often find it difficult to be accepted into previously white neighbourhoods.
Most of us know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of bias. Who has not experienced bias because of the way they look? Maybe it is the colour of your skin, maybe it is your body shape, maybe it is the way you dress. People experience bias because of the way they speak, often because they are communicating in a language that is not their first. People are looked down upon because of their background, where they live, their religion, which school they went to, which sports team they support and so many other factors. If you look inside yourself, even if you are amongst the most privileged in our country, you can identify times when you were at the receiving end. Instead of simply returning the favour or transferring our biases to others, maybe we should take a moment and think about it. Think about how you would like to be treated and treat others in that way.
It is important that we do not simply leave the process of transformation to government, but that we do our part to encourage it in our spheres of life. The next time you face a choice that involves people that are different from you, take a moment to reflect before you make your decision. The next time xenophobic violence flares up in your area, put yourself in the shoes of the foreigners that are being targeted and think again about your choice. The next time you are faced with someone of another race in your school or neighbourhood, think about their dreams and aspirations before you make your choice. The next time you are electing someone to leadership, whether it be at your school, club or other community organisation, consider your familiarity biases before proceeding. The next time you employ or promote someone, be open to what may be the uncomfortable choice, taking into account the inequality that remains in our society. The next time you choose a sports team, take into account those players that are struggling to break in for other reasons than talent. The next time you do a business deal, be open to role-players other than the usual suspects. Do this because you love this country and you want to make it a better place for you, your children and your grandchildren to thrive in for generations to come. Do it, because it is the right thing to do.
Can you admit that you suffer from familiarity bias? Are you purposefully biased or are you sometimes unaware of your actions? Is this an us or them scenario for you? Will you check yourself the next time you face a choice? Do you think your choice will be different? I would love to hear your feedback.
In the mean time, keep your talking straight!