Last Wednesday, three sister companies of the NTT DATA Group; everis, itelligence and NTT DATA UK, ran our first virtual D&I conference. In the conference, we aimed to empower our people through their uniqueness. Together, through these events, we want to influence society by raising awareness of common stereotypes and help to modulate unconscious biases.
Biases are built on socio-cultural stereotypes and prejudices that are reinforced by social standardisation. These stereotypes are so strong that they can interfere with our own perception of ourselves and make us assume things that aren’t true. When we’re making a decision for example, we project ourselves into the future and visualise ourselves in that new reality. If our future self-image coincides with any pre-set stereotypes we may have, we are more inclined to replace our self-image with that stereotype. Similarly, we will often assume that a certain type of person will be successful purely because they fit into our mental model of success.
These pre-set stereotypes are often reinforced by what we see on TV. For example, in our collective imagination, the stereotypical STEM-world professional is a slightly geeky introverted man that doesn’t have much of a social life – think The Big Bang Theory or Doctor Who.
Cognitive biases in the brain
In any case, biases occur when our brain uses mental shortcuts to better process information, reduce uncertainty and make decisions and judgements. At any given moment, we receive 11 million pieces of information, but once this is processed through our perceptions, interpretations, preferences and selective attention, we only absorb between 40 and 50. This filtering process causes cognitive biases, an error in thinking, as this final judgement has come from what your brain considers to be desirable or correct.
So far, more than 200 heuristics and cognitive biases have been studied. A writer called Buster Beston suggests that there are four situations where our brain will use these biases to solve a situation:
- When too much information exists. When we receive too much information, our brain filters out what it believes to be unimportant, so that we are left with the information most useful to us.
- When we don’t know how to give meaning to what surrounds us. When we only get one piece of information and we need to understand it, we fill in the gaps with things we already know.
- When we need to act fast. When we are limited by time and information our brain responds quickly to make a snap judgement. This ability to act quickly in the face of uncertainty is an evolutionary response.
- When we choose what to remember. We can’t afford to remember everything, so our brain chooses to remember the information that is most likely to be useful to us in the future.
This explanation helps us to understand when the brain uses heuristics, but it is important as well to understand the how in order to identify our own filters and be in control of them.
Columbia University studied 28 people completing a series of three tasks while in a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machine to gain an insight into how people use past experiences to make new decisions. They found that networks of associations in memory, formed across many different experiences, can result in the formation of perceived ideas and stereotypes.
We analyse our world by filtering what we see through our own manufactured experiences. As a very simple example, if someone gives me a pink towel, this stimulus provokes the cognition that pink is a girls’ colour. This cognition then provokes an emotion (I hate pink) and a behavioural response (I do not use pink towels). Even though we may think we are consciously in control of our thoughts and behaviour, sometimes it is our unconscious thoughts that are in control of us.
Each individual has their own unique psychology and individuality which affects how we interpret situations and behave as a result. This is neurodiversity.
Neurodiversity refers to the diverse ways the brain can process information and highlights the natural differences in the way we think. We have different interests and motivations. Some people are better at some things and poorer at others. It is important to understand the neurodiversity of others in order to collaborate and adapt to their needs.
We now find ourselves in a time where appreciating our uniqueness can have a huge impact on our professional success, but more importantly, our happiness and quality of life.
We have to be aware of our own stereotypes and unconscious biases in order to manage them effectively. A lack of understanding of neurodiversity causes misperceptions and can cause conflicts when ignored or devalued. If we are aware of our own biases and neurodiversity, we can proactively begin to do what we can to communicate our needs and support others. Instead of labelling those around us, we should treat each individual as an individual – a unique human being with a unique perspective on the world. In my eyes, this is how we can best help others flourish whilst still succeeding on a personal, organisational and societal level.