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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

Biased? Not me!

Updated: Dec 3, 2022

Four people of different ages, genders, and ethnicities are in the background and in the foreground is the frame from a pair of glasses.

What does it mean to be biased? Am I biased? Are you biased?

If we are honest we must acknowledge that we all have biases. Biases are our default. They appear naturally, as well as being learned and reinforced with experience. Good news – they can also be unlearned.

In preparation for moderating a panel presentation on overcoming biases, I am increasing my awareness of what biases are, how they form, how they manifest in our lives, the negative consequences that result, and how we can overcome them.

Awareness is the first step in making a change.

Are you aware of biases in yourself and others?

What is bias?

Merriam-Webster defines it as...

“an inclination of temperament or outlook; a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment; prejudice.” Biases include the attitudes, prejudices, and stereotypes we hold related to how we view or think about a type or group of people – what pops into your head when you hear words such as soccer mom, senior citizen, or immigrant? Those thoughts can be negative or positive or a combination of both, and they affect our understanding, actions, and decisions. Why do we default to biased thinking? E.B. White says it well: “Prejudice is a great time saver. You can form opinions without having to get the facts.”

What is implicit bias?

There are many different types of biases. The one our panel presentation will focus on is what is referred to as implicit bias. Implicit bias is unconscious, meaning we experience and exhibit it without thinking about it.

Why be concerned about implicit bias?

Implicit biases form a barrier to effective communication. To get a picture of how biases can be problematic, allow me to share the word picture we created for our panel presentation on overcoming bias for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo…

Imagine a river, a river called bias. Depending on the type of bias, the river might be calm, or it might be raging. Regardless, biases form a dividing line, separating communicators from audiences on opposing banks. These unconscious biases, prejudices, and stereotypes form barriers to effective communication and affect dietetics professionals in all practice and educational settings. They include negative perceptions based on race, body size, age, gender, disability, education, economic class, and more.

When do biases form?

Research indicates that biases may be present earlier than previously thought. Studies conducted with 3 to 10-month-old infants by researchers from Canada along with others from the US, UK, France, and China (1) suggest that racial bias may exist by 6 months of age even with no previous contact with other races.

This could be considered a form of affinity bias, in which we favor those who are like us. To overcome this type of bias, early childhood researchers recommend early exposure to a diversity of races and cultures.

Positive experiences and early learning can prevent negative racial biases. Other influences that can serve to prevent or promote biases include our upbringing, media exposure, and culture.

How do biases manifest themselves, especially in settings such as healthcare?

Implicit biases are unfortunately as common among health professionals as in the general public and are associated with poorer communication, disparities in diagnosis and treatment decisions, and a decreased level of care. (2,3,4)

Patients experiencing bias include not only racial minorities, but also those with obesity, of lower socioeconomic status, and other marginalized groups such as those in the LGBTQ community.

In addition to healthcare, negative biases are prevalent in the workplace and many other settings. For example, biases in hiring are common among people in the populations listed above as well as among women and older adults.

How can we reduce the negative impact of bias?

The first step in reducing the negative impact of bias is recognizing it. We can’t change what we aren’t aware of. In our panel presentation, we will be providing participants with two tools for self-awareness.

  1. The first is the self-awareness assessment from chapter 13 in Communicating Nutrition: The Authoritative Guide. If you have a copy of the book, you can find it on page 209.

  2. The second is a link to the Project Implicit site hosted by Harvard University. At this site, you can assess your implicit biases in 14 areas including race, age, gender, disability, and more:

How do we overcome bias?

There are many ways. In our presentation, we illustrate these strategies as forming a bridge over the river of bias and helping us connect and communicate effectively with others. Here are 5 tips for overcoming bias.

“We all have cultural bias, racial bias. One of the difficult things around this subject matter is to deny that we have places we go to subconsciously, and unless you consciously decide that that's wrong and you've got to do something about it, especially if you're in a position of power, it won't change.” ~ David Oyelowo

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