Are You a ‘Good-ish’ Person? How to Push Past Your Biases

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Psychologist Dolly Chugh discusses her new book on how we can take stock of our unconscious biases.

These are challenging times in society and in the workplace, where there are so many questions about bias. While many people consider themselves supportive of equality, diversity and inclusion, they may have hidden biases that prevent them from growing into better versions of themselves. In her new book, psychologist Dolly Chugh, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, shows how taking deep stock of those unconscious biases can lead to enlightenment. The Person You Mean To Be: How Good People Fight Bias also encourages readers to see themselves as “good-ish,” a term that Chugh says leaves room for personal growth rather than condemnation. Katherine Milkman, Wharton professor of operations, information and decisions, attended graduate school with Chugh, where they collaborated on a research project about bias. Milkman recently joined the Knowledge@Wharton radio show on SiriusXM to interview Chugh about the book.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: What inspired you to write this book?

Dolly Chugh: These are challenging times. I’m a scholar who studies these issues, but I’m also a person living in the world, struggling through them just like everyone else is. I teach, and I would mix up two students of the same race when they don’t look anything alike. I would assign a reading and then have a female student email me and say that she found the reading sexist. That would send me into a big defensive zone: How could I have assigned a sexist reading? Then I would reread it and think, “Oh, actually I may have had a blind spot.”

My own ups and downs in navigating these issues was coming up against my knowledge that we have research out there that can help us. My decision to write this book came from a place of taking the research that I and others are doing out of the dusty academic journals and bringing it into the world, where the rest of us are living in these challenging times….

Katherine Milkman: Can you talk specifically about what’s in the book?

Chugh: I call it the smart, semi-bold person’s guide for diversity and inclusion. It’s an approach to thinking about diversity and inclusion that really begins with thinking about yourself and the ways in which you may inadvertently be holding some unconscious biases or benefiting from systemic bias. I do everything from defining those words and offering a little bit of research, to telling stories about people who have been thinking about this and how they’ve struggled with it, and then offering some concrete tips about how to actually navigate those issues.

Milkman: I was really taken with your discussion of unconscious bias in the book. What is that and why does it matter?

Chugh: Unconscious bias, which is sometimes referred to as implicit bias, has been in our national discussion a lot in the last year or two. What I’m trying to offer is not a magic-bullet solution, because as social scientists we have not come up with that yet, but an approach to thinking about ourselves as works in progress, people who are growing and learning and beginning to see things that may not have been visible to us before.

One of the things we’re trying to do is simply audit or notice ways in which sometimes our unconscious biases leak into our behaviors. I tell a story in the book of a very senior executive, Rick Klau at Google Ventures. Despite seeing himself as someone who was advocating for women and underrepresented minorities on his team and in the workplace, he was surprised at his results on an unconscious bias measure called the Implicit Association Test (IAT). He started looking more closely at the places where his influence in his role really shows up, like who’s in his contact list — he does a lot of matching funding with business plans and opportunities — and he noticed that only 20% of his contacts were female. He noticed his social media feed was only 20% female. And this surprised him. This was a noticing process that allowed him to see ways in which he was letting perhaps some unconscious biases slip into how he was doing his work. He then had an action item: He was able to go expand his network to balance it out.

Milkman: That’s a great anecdote, and I love that part of the book. One of the points you make is about having a growth mindset and how important it is for building and fighting bias. Could you talk about that?

“What I’m trying to offer is not a magic-bullet solution … but an approach to thinking about ourselves as works in progress.”

Chugh: Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford, is the originator of the term growth mindset. It’s a term that explains our beliefs about our abilities and whether those abilities can grow and change, or whether they’re fixed, which would be a fixed mindset. I could have a growth mindset about my ability to learn a new sport, but might have a fixed mindset about my ability to learn how to draw.

What I was so fascinated by is the really robust research that Carol Dweck and many collaborators have done on mindset … and how it applies to issues like bias and inclusion. What we know as social scientists is the vast majority of our mental processing is happening outside of our conscious awareness, which means we are slipping up and not seeing it sometimes. What happens when the slip-up is made visible to us? Do we shut down or do we learn and grow? That’s where Carol Dweck’s work becomes so useful. If we could have a mindset of ourselves as a work in progress, then when we make a mistake we may not feel great about it, but we’ll look at it, learn from it, improve from it.

In a fixed mindset, if we view ourselves as either good or not, either sexist or not, either racist or not — which is very often the way we corner ourselves in the conversations around these issues — there’s nowhere to go when you make a mistake. Very few of us are willing to take on the label of not being a good person or being a racist or a sexist. And if that’s the only alternative, we have a fixed mindset and don’t learn. We double down on defending ourselves. We go into the red zone of protecting our identity.

Milkman: Hopefully, a lot of those concepts will resonate with anyone who has read Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. I think this is a very related book but on a different topic.

Chugh: Absolutely. That’s such a great connection because the jargon-y term for a lot of this work that I do on the psychology of good people is bounded ethicality. And bounded ethicality is really just a riff off of bounded rationality, Herb Simon’s term, which then would lead to Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s work in Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Milkman: One of the things I think makes the book so compelling is the way you weave narrative with the science that you and others have done on this topic. I particularly loved one of those narratives about Max Bazerman, a professor at Harvard who was an important mentor to both of us in graduate school. You use him as an example of what you call an inclusive builder. What are the key characteristics of inclusive builders, and why is Max such a great example?

“The vast majority of our mental processing is happening outside of our conscious awareness, which means we are slipping up and not seeing it sometimes.”

Chugh: That chapter was such a joy to write because I knew it was a strong real-world example, but also because this was someone whom you and I have learned so much from. He’s modeled for us what inclusion looks like. What I tried to highlight is that a lot of what Max does to be inclusive isn’t big, brain surgery type stuff. It’s small things like not interrupting people, being aware of people’s different holidays and religious commitments, and not questioning what’s more or less serious.

I have two children, and Max and I have collaborated on a number of things. [Whereas] in the past I’ve had to decline an opportunity or a business trip when there was something going on with my kids, he doesn’t assume that because I said no once that I will always say no. He always brings the opportunity to the person and then lets them decide, rather than deciding for them.

He has always been completely appropriate. In this era of #MeToo, I think it’s important to highlight that there are men who understand boundaries and are following them in a very appropriate way. These are not earth-shattering things. But when someone does them daily in such a constant way, they add up to inclusion with a capital I. Max is an example of someone who has a track record of mentoring student after student who’s gone on to do wonderful things, and many of those students were women. And I think it’s because of these very consistent actions he’s taken over time.

Milkman: Some of our research together actually found its way into the book, which was really exciting. You mentioned a study we collaborated on showing that professors are more receptive to mentoring requests that come from white students rather than requests that come from minority students. Talk about the takeaways from that study that you think are most important for people outside of the ivory tower.

Chugh: Katy, it’s so exciting to be talking to you about that study right now because it occurs to me that you generated the idea for that study. I think we were at Wharton when that conversation first took place; I think this is a full circle moment. It was probably 10 or 15 years ago now. We and Modupe Akinola, our co-author, were interested in looking at how informal pathways affect important diversity outcomes. In our world of academia, people often hear informally that you can email professors before you apply to a Ph.D. program, indicate your interest in their research and ask if they’d be willing to talk to you about it. There’s no formal process around this — it just sort of happens sometimes. When it does, it can lead to important recognition on the faculty member’s part that this person could be a good Ph.D. student, so it can affect admissions outcomes down the road.

We did an audit study, sometimes called a field experiment, where we created fictional identities for students of different genders and races and had each of those fictional students send an identical email to professors, one randomly selected professor from every Ph.D.-granting department in the United States, based on the U.S. News and World Report college listing. We were interested in which students would get a response. Our finding, as Katy so masterfully helped us craft our analysis for, showed that our white males were more likely to get a response from a professor from this cold-call email than our nonwhite males.

“It’s interesting that in this area of diversity, inclusion, bias, equity, equality, we deny ourselves the opportunity to grow.”

The way I think about that finding is that it illustrates how these informal pathways are not captured in the big hiring numbers and the diversity numbers and the things that are legally important to follow in compliance. But they have real influence on the numbers that are eventually captured. So, it’s a pathway to an important gateway, in this case admission to a Ph.D. program. And it’s in a context that a lot of people assume that we’ve kind of figured it out in academia, that if anything we’re stereotyped to being overly attuned to these issues. Our data suggested otherwise.

Knowledge@Wharton: When people find out they have a bias, are they receptive to taking that information in and trying to change?

Chugh: I don’t think we’re programmed to be receptive. I think we’re programmed to be in that fixed mindset of either I’m a good person or I’m not, either I’m a sexist or I’m not. Our national conversation often has that vibe to it as well, that either/or mindset. What I’m hoping to do in this book is offer a ton of examples of people who’ve opted or somehow found themselves with more of a growth mindset as a result of thinking of themselves as good-ish people — good-ish implies work in progress. I’m not a good person who has nowhere to go when I make a mistake; I’m a good-ish person who has somewhere to go.

Do I think that’s where people naturally go? No. But I think when they go there it’s almost exhilarating. Any time you learn something new and get better at it, it’s a great feeling. It’s interesting that in this area of diversity, inclusion, bias, equity, equality, we deny ourselves the opportunity to grow. We don’t give ourselves the satisfaction of getting better, particularly in a domain we care deeply about and that impacts others in really significant ways. I feel like there’s an opportunity not just to do the things we want to do for the world around us, but also to help see ourselves as the people we mean to be.

Knowledge@Wharton: What is the net gain of getting people to be at the level of good-ish?

Chugh: I think there’s a multiplier effect: The more we see people owning their mistakes, taking accountability and then getting better, the more it liberates us to do it. I see it all the time when I give talks on this topic. People are stunned that I’ll admit some of the things that are fairly humiliating that I’ve done, my missteps. But then they start telling me their missteps. And it’s like, OK, now how do we move beyond confessional? That’s not what this is about. This is about growing from it. And then we do.

Milkman: What do you hope people will be able to do better after they read this book?

Chugh: I hope we’re able to have more constructive Thanksgiving conversations. I’m hoping we are able to learn how to say our colleagues’ names properly rather than avoiding names we don’t know how to pronounce or shortening them or nicknaming them. I’m hoping that we learn how to apologize when we make a mistake. These are some of the really behavioral things.

“The more we see people owning their mistakes, taking accountability and then getting better, the more it liberates us to do it.”

But on a higher level, I hope we take on a different way of thinking about our role. This isn’t about solving the problems around us, it’s about starting with what we can do and giving ourselves the gift of the opportunity to grow. It’s setting a higher standard for ourselves, but also moving towards it.

Milkman: What did you learn when writing the book that surprised you the most?

Chugh: When I submitted my book proposal and was lucky enough to get a contract, the word “systemic” was nowhere in my document. I went back and checked that it didn’t exist. I was all at the individual level. Trained as a social psychologist, I really think about what’s going on in one individual’s mind and maybe how a couple of individuals would interact with each other.

Through the interviews I did for the book, it became clear I was really missing something thinking about systems and processes and institutions. That’s not my area of research expertise, but I learned so much by beginning to hear about what sociologists and economists and political scientists and historians can tell us. Some of the things I share in the book on that topic were the ones that I learned the most in doing the work.

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