Not Quite Six Feet Apart: Bias in a Pandemic
Dr. Adam Foley
Director- Diversity Education, Assessment, & Outreach
The last two months have provided me, like many of you, with an immense amount of information to process. It isn’t an overstatement to say that this pandemic is a generation-defining moment. The effects on all aspects of our society will be deep and long-lasting. It’s not a stretch to think that perhaps in 20 years, college students will be majoring in “Covid-19 Studies.” We’ll certainly see scholars in a variety of disciplines emerge to analyze our current thoughts, actions, and reactions. All of that is in addition to the scientific work currently being done which will help us understand a myriad other concerns in the future. Right now, though, it’s hard to just wade through the sea of information and misinformation. We are having conversations about how best to respond to conspiracy theories and reading actual warnings from government agencies about not ingesting household cleaners. These are strange times, to be sure. They are also, in some ways, predictably unpredictable.
Our own biases might then give us some insight into the immensely disparate responses to this pandemic on a psychological, sociological, and political level. Generally speaking, a bias is simply a partiality towards something. We all favor a particular sports team, restaurant, or that hoodie we’ve worn just a few too many times since being quarantined. Cognitive biases can be grouped into two categories. Information biases cause us to take shortcuts in interpretations while making decisions. Ego biases allow our emotions and sense of self to excessively influence our decisions.
Photo by Paul Skorupskas on Unsplash
Let’s look at some general decision-making biases impacting our response to Covid-19, and then we’ll dive into some more specific ramifications.
Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. Is this ringing a bit too true for you these days? Amnesia Bias refers to our tendency to quickly forget the results and mistakes of past scenarios. There has been a lot written about the similarities between Covid-19 and the Kansas Flu (I refuse to call it the Spanish flu, which only feeds xenophobic terms for the virus, and most reports indicate it originated on a military base in Kansas). This certainly provides us with some precedent, but social conditions are also decidedly different compared with a hundred years ago. However, we are not strangers to other pandemics: SARS, MERS, Ebola, H1N1, H1N5, and the Bird Flu have all been players on the virology world stage in our lifetimes. Government officials, including past presidents, have called for better pandemic preparedness. Unfortunately, our memories are short and immediate priorities often push long-term planning to the side. As an interesting anecdote, then-governor Schwarzenegger, back in 2006, helped develop a statewide stockpile of medical supplies in the event of just such a scenario. Unfortunately, when his successor, Jerry Brown, took office in 2011, he faced a huge budget deficit following the economic collapse of 2008, and cut the program.
That decision by Governor Brown provides us with an example of another common bias. Myopia Bias is another time-related phenomenon and refers to our tendency to focus on too-short timelines when considering costs/benefits of certain decisions. We view the world through our own narrow perspective. “I can’t imagine anyone ever doing that,” or “I could never even think about doing such a thing,” or “I’ve never even thought about that.”We’ve seen this play out with significant consequences in the debate between economic recovery and public health precautions. This bias also leads to an inability to recognize white privilege when it emerges, as we’ve never been forced to notice the water we are swimming in.
That white privilege has been on display in a number of ways as we fail to adequately address the disproportionately adverse impact the pandemic is having on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) folks, those who are differently abled, those who are housing insecure, and a host of others. These differing experiences have also played out in more direct ways. Xenophobia/ Racial Bias reared its ugly head pretty early into the pandemic with unfounded discrimination directed at Asian-Americans as a result of the early reports of the virus out of China. In general, xenophobia is a fear of difference or something seen as foreign. It has taken on decidedly racist overtones during the myriad hateful and discriminatory attacks across the country. We have also seen this racial bias manifest in the disproportionately high numbers of African Americans testing positive for the virus.
Whereas much of this hate-filled behavior is not new and has been around since the founding of our country, other behaviors are much newer. In many ways, the pandemic has created a global experiment in behavior change as we ask seven billion people to wear masks and social distance. Inertia Bias makes it hard for us to shift course. When we are comfortable with the path or decisions we are making, then changing course becomes that much more difficult and we resist change, even if it might be for the best. Wearing a mask and standing six feet apart is harder than it sounds! Change is hard, especially when we have been doing something different for so long.
Status Quo Bias is a phenomenon you are no doubt very familiar with yourself. We have a tendency to avoid change, even when presented with a better option requiring minimal effort. We’ve all been faced with quite a bit of change lately, so the desire to hold onto anything comfortable and/or familiar is strong. As we transition to new ways of living, we’ll continue to see folks resistant to change, even when it is clearly in their best interest. We also tend to see status quo bias emerge when we are overloaded with too many choices. It’s just easier to “stick with what works!”
With so many choices often available to us, we can easily become overwhelmed. Simplification bias encourages us to consider only a subset of the facts when making decisions because it makes the choice easier to manage. We all want easy answers, and that is certainly true during the current state of affairs. However, thinking that a small drop in the number of cases means we are in the clear fails to take into account a much broader and more complicated set of variables.
It goes without saying that all of us are busy in new and unique ways. It can be hard to keep abreast of the latest recommendations and state requirements. We are much more likely to rely on our close communities for updates on the latest news and to inform our decisions on how to react. This can provide us with the kind of cognitive shortcuts our overtaxed brains and body desperately need. It can also lead to a bias known as herding. Herding is very similar to the phenomenon of Group Think and causes us to make decisions based on what we see others doing, regardless of whether we understand their decisions. This can be a beneficial bias when it expedites positive public health behaviors such as social distancing and hand-washing. Unfortunately, it also helps explain why so many people are now quickly foregoing their masks as states begin to reopen and restart their economies. It also explains the irrational run on toilet paper at the beginning of the pandemic despite nobody being able to understand it. We want things to return to normal because we are comfortable with that state of being. It feels familiar and we generally know how to operate. It also means we are less likely to fully comprehend and effectively operate within a “new normal” in the short-term.
Normalcy Bias or negative panic can help explain the slow reactions in the U.S. and other parts of the world to the rising numbers of Covid-19 cases and the early scientific reports suggesting precautions to take. Normalcy bias is our tendency to think things will continue to function the way they always have and therefore underestimate the potential of a disaster and its likely effects. The reports of crowded beaches during spring break despite the warnings to social distance are a prime example of this form of bias at work.
Everyone on those crowded beaches, both then and now, is optimistic about their chances of remaining healthy. Optimism Bias allows us to underestimate the negative impacts that will occur as the result of future problems. This optimism allows us to avoid concerning ourselves with future outbreaks as well as assume that “it won’t happen to me.” This same optimism meant we did not take the threat of a global pandemic as seriously as we would have otherwise, so we didn’t plan accordingly. The threat did not feel imminent, so we didn’t see the signs around us that it was likely. We didn’t heed the warnings of scientists and public health officials. We wanted the threat to be minimal and we tried to wish that scenario into reality.
Confirmation Bias is the wishful thinking that allows us to latch onto an idea we want to be true and then see all incoming evidence through that lens. In effect, we only receive the information that confirms what we already think, and avoid or ignore anything that contradicts that assumption. This can have disastrous effects, as in the case of individuals who read the headlines indicating that President Trump was encouraging the drug hydroxychloroquine as a cure for coronavirus and began self-medicating prophylactically. The results were incredibly harmful, and could have been avoided had these individuals objectively considered the wealth of messaging discouraging such behavior. They wanted an easy solution, and a quick fix at that!
Without question, many individuals are making questionable decisions amid the pandemic. However, a majority of us are taking the steps we are being directed to take. We are staying at home, social-distancing, wearing masks, washing our hands, and monitoring our symptoms. Single-action Bias occurs when the good feeling we get from a single positive act makes us less likely to view the larger problem with a sense of urgency. In other words, we can’t see the forest for the trees. As more and more states are opening businesses up again, we are already seeing the evidence that people are letting down their guard. They took those steps, past-tense, so they feel they should be able to resume business as usual now. The “I can be safe” attitude ignores the lack of control we have over the actions of others and how their actions may impact us.
As we move forward, there can be no business as usual. There is no “new normal” because there is nothing normal about this situation. However, there are new cultural norms that will no doubt be in place for a long time to come. Working and learning from home has been thrust into the minds of everyone in new and innovative ways and many may never return to physical offices or classrooms again. Shaking hands as a Western greeting may have come to an end, along with the long outdated 9-5 workday. Millions of people have been humanized in new ways through a Zoom connection interrupted with children and pets.
Most importantly, as we begin to peek over the wall at the other side, we are in a unique position to rewrite the playbook. We can proactively take into account our biases as we make decisions for the immediate future, as well as for generations to come. We arguably have more of a blank slate than anyone thought possible to correct for many of the decision-making behaviors that helped drag us unwittingly down this road in the first place. It’s a rare gift to be able to rewrite the next few chapters of our collective story. I can only hope that our biases don’t give us a bad case of writer’s block.
Dr. Adam Foley
Director- Diversity Education, Assessment, & Outreach
It’s easy to assert that we have transitioned to a “new normal”. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, written it in emails, and uttered it over Zoom calls. I know I have! However, it’s a bit of a misnomer when you stop to think about it. In reality, there is nothing normal about this period in history. We are collectively experiencing a period in our lives that will define a generation and shape our working and living spaces on a much more permanent basis. At the same time, or experiences vary greatly based on identity, and highlight many underlying privileges we may have yet to realize.
One of the biggest changes we have all experienced in varying ways is the shift to an increased reliance on online communication. In some ways, this seems a bit like overkill. We’ve been sending email and using webcams consistently for well over a decade, right? It would be easy to say that our online environment is nothing new, and that we’ve simply upped our usage numbers. That doesn’t accurately reflect the shift in reliance, however. We are experiencing a state of being where physical contact has been taken away not by our choice, but by necessity. The result is a transition to an online environment unlike any we have experienced before. For many, working from home is no longer the relaxing gift on an irregular basis that it once was.
It is thus more important now than ever that we consider the importance of inclusivity as we operate within our online environments. This is not simply a conversation about diversity (broadly defined as the state of difference) but looks to each and every one of our practices as opportunities to consider and implement equitable and inclusive ideas, actions, policies, and relationships.
Although we continue to work towards actualizing full equity and inclusivity in the physical world, our current moment in time offers us a unique opportunity to more fully consider inclusivity in an online environment. Even after we return to campus, many of the online working and learning practices we are currently familiarizing ourselves with will become much more common. With that forward-thinking in mind, I offer some considerations for more fully embracing equity in an online environment.
We can consider the classic journalism questions- Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? These questions apply to your working and learning environment, regardless of your job or area of study.
Who is currently involved in the conversation and planning? Who is not represented? Who’s voice is not being heard? Who is responsible for making decisions?
The “Who” is all about identifying, creating, and supporting a broad, inclusive community. We often invite folks to the table simply to feel good about representation, without actually considering which voices need to be heard in order to ensure an equitable and inclusive end product. In an online environment, this question becomes even more important as we consider access to communication channels, and the various ways people may or may not be able to communicate. These considerations have implications for scheduling, frequency, and content as well.
Where do I start?
- Consider adopting a trauma-informed approach to understanding and addressing a new online environment. We can’t not acknowledge that the impact of this pandemic has been substantial from a physical, emotional, spiritual, and psychological perspective.
- Be sure to check in regularly with folks in an equitable manner. It’s easy to take for granted the brief drop-in conversations we have regularly until they are taken from us.
What are we discussing? Which problems are we attempting to address? Are we offering examples of diverse content and acknowledging different ways of processing information? Is the language we are using keeping some people away from the conversation, whether intentionally or not?
The “What” is ultimately about deciding who gets to prioritize the work we do, identify needs, and how to communicate. On a broad level, this means considering all aspects of accessibility and adopting an equitable and inclusive UDL (universal design for learning) approach to all of our work. In an online environment, this means not only considering access to translation services, captioning, but also differences in technology that may inhibit a persons’ ability to access information.
Where do I start?
- Utilizing caption and transcription services such as https://www.rev.com/.
- Don’t forget that we can still use email. We’ve quickly shifted to a Zoom-centric lifestyle, but sometimes a simple email will do the trick, and cut down on Zoom-fatigue as well.
- Consider new ways to visualize your work and collaborate, utilizing tools such as Mural, Trello, and Asana.
- Be cognizant of representation when choosing images and readings. This is a wonderful chance to familiarize yourself with some new authors!
What are our work hours? When do we schedule meetings? What impact do other responsibilities have on our time while at home?
This question goes beyond whether or not someone is a morning or an evening person (although, I will 100% always decline an 8AM meeting request, regardless of whether it is face-to-face or over Zoom!). Our concept of time and the “work day” has changed drastically as we have all pivoted in various ways to account for additional responsibilities at home and with our families. Shifting to a focus on thinking about our work as project-based, and thus more dependent on how much time something takes as opposed to when it should be done, can make all the difference. Consider a variety of scheduling tools to allow you to more easily manage your time. More importantly, remember that a 9-5 mindset doesn’t necessarily work well in an online environment (although it certainly does for some folks).
Where do I start?
- Look for opportunities to build trust with those you are working with virtually. This will make the conversations about timing and other commitments much easier and also give you insight into the lives of those you are interacting with daily.
- Consider multiple forms of participation during online meetings and classes.
Location. Location. Location. It’s an adage not just for real estate agents! How are we creating welcoming spaces in an online environment? How are we thinking about access to online environments and the tools for doing so?
Our online “office” looks very different, depending on various other aspects of our lives and identities. We need to consider things like the timing of meetings and classes, as well as expectations about video use and microphone use, when establishing safe, equitable, and inclusive online environments. It’s also important to think about how information is shared and posted. Web accessibility is crucial now more than ever.
Where do I start?
- Think about how you can effectively develop community in an online space.
- Consider where you might go in your current location in order to have a sensitive or confidential conversation. Remember that access to this space might be limited and plan meetings and educational time accordingly.
- Socially-just facilitation is key in any online meeting space.
The child in me loves these 3 letters a great deal. Encouraging equity and inclusivity in online environments begins, in many ways, with these 3 letters. Why? Why are we doing things the way we are? Why are we getting the outcomes we are getting? Why are we asking the questions we are asking?
An online environment is not intended as a copy of our campus spaces. Instead, I encourage you to think of the online environment as a reflection. Although similar in terms of goals and influences, it is an altogether different space. Our shift has presented us with a unique opportunity to ask why with regard to situations and structures that we had long since taken for granted as “just the way things are”. This is at the heart of social justice work and essential to crafting an equitable and inclusive online environment.
Where do I start?
- Provide opportunities for folks to reflect on discussions and other projects. Follow-up with individuals separately in order to gather those “why” questions and be transparent when communicating responses.
- When appropriate, share questions and responses for the benefit of the larger community.
You’ll find this question at the intersection of the rubber and the road. All of the other questions are well and good in the abstract, but we often struggle to integrate them into our daily lives. In our eagerness to keep things flowing, it can be easy to move straight from a to z and skip the rest of the alphabet.
What tools do you already have at your disposal to achieve your new goals? What tools do you not have? How can resources be reallocated? What does this changing online environment mean for the previous responsibilities of the individuals on your team? How might you ensure that everyone has equitable input and opportunity to contribute to this new mission or set of goals? This means reconsidering workflow, curriculum design, assessment, and communication.
Where do I start?
- Consider using encrypted messaging services, such as Signal, to ensure privacy. Be sure to ensure folks have access to a VPN as well, and are familiar with how to use it. You may also consider engaging in private browsing via the Tor Browser.
- Now is a good time to set up a password manager, such as LastPass, which is free to use.
- Check out this Leading Groups Online resource for some great suggestions.
There are a wealth of online tools to help you address these 6 questions in order to design a more inclusive online environment. However, none of these tools can take the place of asking these 6 questions with the intention of arriving at concrete answers. The digital divide has become increasingly apparent, and the current pandemic has laid bare many of the shortcomings of our current societal structure. It has also provided us with an opportunity to intentionally consider how to craft an equitable and inclusive online environment at its foundation. Perhaps then we won’t need to demo everything and start over in a few decades. Start crafting your inclusive online environment now! May the 4th be with you!
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Technological innovation has addressed some of the largest problems in the world over the years. We have focused our collective computing intelligence on a great many issues, ranging from education to environmental protection. However, I do not normally associate an intentional combination of 1s and 0s with solutions to issues such as sexism, racism, and homophobia. However, this past weekend, I had the unique opportunity to think about how to combine my vocation and my passion to address a nagging social problem that politicians, educators, and researchers have yet to fully solve. My goal was to hack the pay gap.
More precisely, I was part of a team of diverse individuals that came together as part of The Breaking the Mold Hackathon. The event, which was organized by the MIT Sloan School of Management, and the Sloan Women in Management, was designed to “hack” unconscious bias in many different forms and generate real world solutions beyond simply discussing issues and concerns. Although the event was modeled on more traditional hackathons, which are typically more tech-centered, and tasked with developing technology-based solutions, this event took a slightly different and more structured path towards solutions.
I prepared for the event by broadening my general knowledge and prior experience exploring the gender pay gap from a feminist multicultural perspective, and looking to business and industry for common narratives and responses to the problem. Several significant solutions, including pay transparency, the elimination of negotiation during the offer process, and providing women with negotiation training, have all been proposed and attempted in recent years by large and small companies and organizations. They all offer a partial solution, but do not necessarily get to the heart of the problem, namely the unconscious bias that causes employers to pay women less for the same work in the first place.
Our group chose to re-conceptualize the gender pay gap as a compensation equity gap. This notion better takes into account not only significant differences in base salary, but also benefits, promotions, retirement packages, bonuses, and other aspects of compensation that traditionally disadvantage women. We developed a software platform that would allow organizational leaders to assess their workforce and directly target the actions and environment within their organizations to effect real change. This change would become a priority within the organization by linking it to the very compensation of organizational leaders themselves.
The idea generation, development, and implementation process was fast-paced, buoyed by diverse perspectives from participants in various fields and industries, and resulted in some highly innovative thinking. Within higher education especially, we spend a great deal of time discussing problems, convening meetings and forming committees, and doing research. All of these pieces are crucial to the process of social change, but they are only as important as the priority that is placed on action.
The Equal Pay Act was passed in 1964. We have been discussing these discrepancies for over 50 years, and have moved the needle very little. This event was an important reminder that talking will only get you so far. Not only are we capable of acting, building, creating, and changing, but we must do so. We must continue to push ourselves to think about how we can hack the problems that plague us and strive to create real, tangible change in the process. Thus, my challenge to each of you is to think about how you can move from discussing to hacking!
I run. A lot. I spend ridiculous amounts of time on my feet, running through the woods and escaping a social and political world that increasingly perplexes me and leaves me shaking my head. My partner often shakes her head and rolls her eyes because she knows that I could be gone for 1 hour or 24 hours. In many ways, it’s my opportunity to attempt to process the deluge of conversations, media coverage, and social media crazy that leaves me wondering where our country is heading. In many ways, my ability to literally escape from the rest of the world and run off into the woods for hours on end is an apt analogy for the privilege I have as a cis-gendered White male to pick and choose when I want to be “on” and when I just want to let it go. I can decide when I want to be an ally and advocate, and when I just don’t have the energy to challenge yet another ignorant comment or casually racist comment.
As my own thinking on oppression and what it means to be an anti-racist ally has evolved, however, I’ve begun to understand more about what it means to be truly committed. In talking with friends and colleagues over the years, it has become more and more evident to me that not everyone has the same privilege to decide when to act and when to remain silent. That is a luxury I have despite the fact that there are reports of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression on a daily basis. Peoples’ lives are intricately woven into the fabric of oppression in such a way as to be inseparable from one another. They can’t simply walk on by, can’t choose whether or not they are going to be affected by what they see, hear, or experience. For many folks from underrepresented groups, their guard is always up. Simply existing in the U.S. means always being on guard, trying to tread water between events, and hoping that the next one won’t hit even closer to home. This conscious tension and anxiety has been studied, and absolutely has a direct and negative impact on other aspects of folks’ lives. I know I’ll never feel that in the same way.
Being an anti-racist social justice ally means seeking it out, though. It means attempting to divert the flow in your direct, even just for a moment, to give someone else the chance to take a deep, cleansing breathe and summon the strength to keep going. In the running world, especially at longer distances, many people talk about “embracing the suck”. By this, I mean acknowledging that at some point, the distance is going to get hard. Really hard. Your body is going to hurt- your muscles will ache, your lungs will burn, your energy will be tapped out, but you’ll still have to move on. All you can do in this instance is embrace the discomfort as an expected way of being, and keep moving forward. The finish line isn’t getting any closer if you aren’t moving. That’s why I truly believe that many of the longer distances are much more a mental than a physical exercise past a certain point. All of this is to say that in being an ally, we need to learn how to embrace the suck.
We need to embed in ourselves the understanding that this work is hard. We need to remember that there will always be one more act of violence, one more casually racist remark, one more ignorant person, one more person struggling to get by and carry the historically and systematically entrenched weight of oppression on their shoulders. We need to consciously decide not to set that weight down when it’s too hard. We need to be ready to walk into the woods, embrace the suck, and keep moving.
This work is hard. It’s hard in a way that I can’t grasp entirely at any given point. That’s where listening comes into play, and not simply acting instinctually. So many of the struggles around oppression are deeply embedded into the fabric of our country, and that can make it hard to see progress, especially when voices are consistently silenced in our collective dialogue. It can make it hard to feel like you are making a difference. It can mean shrugging your shoulders in confusion as a White ally. That feeling of helplessness has left many folks wondering what to do in the wake of so many tragedies. I feel that same sense of helplessness at times myself. There are always going to be shifting pieces and changing rules in this game, but the weight of history that oppressed peoples’ carry around with them remains consistent. So, if I can embrace the suck and carry some of that burden myself to support those that aren’t given a choice about carrying it, then I’m allowing them to stand up straight, take that much needed deep breath, and carry on.
Please reach out with comments, questions, or to grab a cup of coffee and chat!
For more information and thoughts, check out some of these great articles.
11 Things White People can Do to Be Real Anti-Racist Allies
Advice For White Folks In The Wake Of The Police Killing Of A Black Person
18 Books Every White Ally Should Read
It’s time to stop talking about racism with white people
Did you ever listen to, and/or watch the video of, Tim McGraw’s song, Humble and Kind? While I’m not particularly a fan of country music I did perk up to listen to it when my husband and I were in the car traveling home from somewhere, and he reached over to the radio to turn up the volume stating that he liked this song. I was intrigued to learn why he like the song so much so I listened closely to the words. It moved me and I want to share with you why.
The song and the video sparked a myriad of thoughts and feelings for me and within me. It made me think about the state of our UD community, the state of our country, and the state of our world today as it pertains to diversity, inclusion, respect and civility. The video portrayed the gamut of human differences from the color of our skin to our religion to our age to our physical and mental capabilities constantly reminding me that we are human – we are all the same – wanting and needing the same things in this very short life that we get to live. It sparked memories of my own personal life events reinforcing the need for me to continue, and consistently, be compassionate to others, to respect those that are different from me, to help those less fortunate than myself, to recognize my privilege and to defend those that cannot do so for themselves. It reminded me of the critical need to “be humble and kind”.
The song also reminded me of the values I was taught when I was younger, oh so long ago – it’s simple really – ‘don’t cheat, lie or steal” – say “please” and “thank you” – “open the door for others” – work hard as there are “no free rides” and while you will achieve success you can “show your pride”, but please, be “humble and kind”……. “sleep with someone you love – I love you ain’t no pick up line” – “help the next person in line”……always “be humble and kind”……
It sounds simple and easy, doesn’t it? Yet, time and time again we hear stories that contradict these values and, specifically, devalue human life and differences. So, my fellow Blue Hens – take a look at the video – and see how, if at all, it makes you feel. Think about how to make the University of Delaware a better place – a place where we can all be “humble and kind” to one another despite our differences – and a better place than you found it when you arrived to UD as a student or employee.
To listen to the song and view the video, please click on this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=awzNHuGqoMc