Our perception of self and others is shaped by our life experiences. Anaïs Nin, the late French-Cuban American novelist, describes this astutely: “We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are.” We rely heavily on our sense of familiarity to discern between opportunities and threats. In fact, we are hard-wired to anticipate a threat when faced with an unfamiliar scenario.
Although this bias served a critically adaptive function in the past (when humans were still evolving as a species and were predominantly hunters and gatherers), it is only recently that researchers have studied its impact on modern societies, and that we have begun trying to correct it.
Last year, we explored the impact of unconscious bias on food safety and quality auditing. This blog post is a deeper dive into the types of unconscious biases that surface during an audit. Although this post does not include a comprehensive list of biases, it does serve as a primer to explore the other types of biases that may manifest itself in the workplace.
Our natural inclination in a social setting is to fit in. Gaining a consensus within the group limits conflicts and promotes coherence. Solomon Asch devised the popular Conformity Experiment in 1951, which later paved the way for understanding how an individual’s judgement could be skewed under peer pressure. The objectivity of one auditor within a team audit setting may be influenced because of this bias. One way to overcome this would be to have auditors share their observations in writing, before discussing them as a group. Not only would this open the door to a more diverse viewpoint, but it would also encourage junior members on the audit team to vocalize their thoughts.
Gender bias is when we think one gender is better suited for a role over another. In the early 2000s, the food safety and quality management industries were male-dominant ones. Even though there has been a significant improvement in closing the gender gap since then, studies have shown that the outcome of an audit can be impacted by the gender of the auditor. In fact, this bias affects both the auditor and the auditee.
Ageism is the difference in behavior or attitude toward people solely based on age. Reverse ageism is the terminology popularly used to describe prejudiced behavior against the younger workforce. If left unchecked, ageism can get in the way of team problem solving, effective interpretation, and the communication of audit results.
Framing bias, also known as the framing effect, is when an individual’s or a group’s decisions are influenced by how the information is presented or framed, using words or graphics. For example, “contains 5% fat” and “is 95% fat free” are technically the same thing. However, “fat free” paints a healthier picture and we may feel more inclined to choose it. This is the power of framing. Considering the effects of framing bias and being mindful of them are good tools to possess as an auditor.
We are only scratching the surface when it comes to understanding our unconscious biases. There is much work to be done in this area, and it will only get better with a learner’s mindset.
What are some biases that you have encountered as a food safety auditor or auditee?