Implicit Bias Training Is a Crock

Matt_Wallaert
By Matt Wallaert
Chief Behavioral Officer, Clover Health

Editor's Note:  Real Talk 1: I’ve been hesitating over the “publish” button on this piece for a while. It’s a hot issue with no easy answer. Matt's tone is strident, brash and in-your-face. It’s also a little different than the normal PeopleScience™ piece, a little more opinionated and pointed, but it’s a start to an important conversation. We can’t talk about workplace performance and engagement without acknowledging the workplace environment.

Behavioral science is the study of our biases, those things that make us human, for better or worse. It’s worth exploring how behavioral science can or cannot change our biases or, more realistically, nudge us along the path of our biases toward better outcomes.

I value Matt’s perspective on the issue, his offer of solutions not just criticism, his colorful language and the fact that he doesn’t have the hesitating problem I have.

Real Talk 2: I am a white male editor of an interview between two white males. We might have some gigantic blind spots. I hope you’ll point them out.

I believe we can’t rely on off-the-shelf solutions to human problems, whether that’s designing loyalty cards and sales incentives or combatting bias. We should start with existing knowledge and our good intentions, but we need to do more.

Have a read and please tell me what you think. Colorful language is acceptable.

(The following is an interview between Evan Allgood and Matt Wallaert.)

Matt Wallaert is a behavioral scientist, product designer, startup founder, nonprofit board member and the creator of GetRaised, a free website that has helped women narrow the income gap by more than $2 billion. He was Microsoft’s first behavioral scientist and is currently Chief Behavioral Officer at Clover Health.

Evan: You’ve done a lot of research into gender bias and how to raise awareness of it among men. What should sexual harassment training look like?

Matt: That’s a hard question. It isn’t clear that we as a country and as a corporate culture understand how to educate people about this – or even that the workplace is the right place to do it. While harassment happens in the workplace, it also happens in other places, and we need to have a national conversation about it. We need to talk about it in schools. All of America needs to have this conversation.

There’s also belief that somehow all the work is getting done, when it’s just not. The number of companies that require sexual harassment training is way lower than you would expect. In many places it’s optional; if you don’t go, nothing happens. Or it’s a training video that you’re supposed to watch at your desk.

We need to do basic stuff like doing the actual research, running the training and putting women in positions of power. People keep looking for these silver bullets or fancy, complicated solutions. We like fancy, complicated solutions because they make us feel like we’re really getting at something, and they make us feel smart. But complicated solutions are rarely the solutions we need. It’s not like we need some magic psychology answer.

It can lead to an even worse outcome than you started with because of this ironic effect

This is why unconscious bias training is such a crock of s---. First of all, there’s no evidence that it works, and most practitioners at this point will tell you that it doesn’t work. (Editor’s note: See, i.e. this study, this study, this study. Other studies suggest that it can change attitudes, but only for the short time around the training itself).

Second, it may actually have an ironic effect, because it says that this bias is part of your unconscious mind — you can’t do anything about it, and you’re helpless before it. So it can lead to an even worse outcome than you started with because of this ironic effect.

Many companies — including Starbucks, apparently — like implicit bias training because it seems like magic. There’s very little evidence that it works, but it’s sexy. You can do it on a computer and it feels like science, not training or work. But it’s a distraction from the actual work we need to do.

We don’t need the complicated version; we need the simple version.

I don’t think there’s a lot of mystery to the work we need to do. I would love to find the silver bullet, but honestly we’re not even there yet. We don’t need the complicated version; we need the simple version.

Evan: Can you talk a little about the 3-1-1 rule and why that last one might be so important?

Matt: I did this study with PayScale where we asked men two questions:

(1) Do you think men and women have equal opportunities in workplaces in general?

(2) Do you think men and women have equal opportunities in your workplace?

Three in five men say yes to both questions; they think opportunities are equal everywhere. These men are stupid. Then there are one in five men who answer no to both questions — they see that it’s a problem in the world and they see that it’s a problem near them.

Then there’s one in five men who say, "Yes, it’s a problem in the world, but it’s not a problem in my workplace." To me these are the most crucial potential conversions.

I don’t know what to do about the three in five, but for the ones who acknowledge that it’s a problem in the world but don’t see it as a problem that’s close to them, all we have to do is show them that it’s close to them.

So we’ve been working on trying to get men to ask an emotionally close woman about experiences of sexism in her life. The idea is that if we can show them that it affects their wife or their daughter, they’ll see that it’s not a problem that’s vaguely out there in the world but one that’s around them all the time, impacting people they care about.

Converting that last one of the five would double the number of male feminists. That’s huge.

Evan: Why did you resist calling yourself a feminist for such a long time?

Matt: I think everyone on the path of social justice goes through a place where they say, "I’m a humanist, not a feminist. I’m pro-everybody; I want to help everybody out, not just women." They go through this stage of moral relativism where they think everything is worth doing and everything is an issue and everybody’s worth fighting for.

Then I think you reach a more resolved stage where you say, yes, that is true, I also want to help men, but I especially want to help women because they face special barriers.

Evan: I’m thinking of All Lives Matter.

Matt: Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter is a fantastic example of this. There is this weird moral relativism where people say, "All Lives Matter." Yes, all lives matter, a-----. I get it.

My younger self was deeply concerned by affirmative action. I wasn’t opposed to affirmative action because I didn’t think we should help people who are underrepresented. My concern was that underrepresented people would think they only got in because of their skin color, and that it could cause a backlash. Ultimately if you want equity, does putting your hand on the pendulum ever get you to the right place?

But then I came across research that said even people who got into college explicitly through affirmative action still turn out better than those who don’t.

Evan: In other words, affirmative action works.

Matt: It totally works. But moral relativism is why I resisted for so long. I’m too old for All Lives Matter, but I can tell you right now that my younger self would have had that same thing cross his mind. When in reality, Black Lives Matter. There are structural inequities that mean we should put more focus and attention and effort into particular things at a particular time.

I deal with this thing with feminism all the time where men — often very powerful, prominent men — say, "I don’t want to lower the standards." And I say, "You’re not lowering the standards! You’re taking into account the fact that there are downward pressures." Committing to the Rooney Rule or making sure you’re interviewing women — in what way does that lower your standards? All we’re asking you to do is acknowledge systematic inequities and make sure you’re talking to underrepresented people in the first place.

Allow yourselves to be impressed by these people.

You’re not lowering the standards! You’re taking into account the fact that there are downward pressures.

Evan: Are there any apps similar to Get Raised that aim to ensure workplaces and hiring practices are inclusive?

Matt: There is a big boom right now in diversity and inclusion-based software. People are attacking all sorts of different things. For example, Textio does linguistic analysis of job posts and offers suggestions for changes to the job description that will get you better candidates, or more diverse and inclusive candidates.

So, if you say, "I want a rock star ninja developer," Textio will highlight "rock star" and "ninja" and suggest alternative words that will get more women and more minorities to apply. They’ve done linguistic analysis to see which words make job postings more inclusive, and as you’re typing the job description they live-suggest better words that you can use.

There’s a ton of software being created in this space right now. As with any time when a lot of people rush into a space, there’s a lot of stuff that will not work. There are a lot of bad ideas, but there are a lot of really good ideas too. In this rush to do it, we’ll get into a ton of different, interesting answers, and I think that’s important. We just need a sheer breadth of crazy weird answers right now.

Any time when a lot of people rush into a space, there are a lot of bad ideas, but there are a lot of really good ideas, too.

Evan: Do you have any advice for aspiring allies?

Matt: I would just stress that it’s a process. Every good ally will remind you that they are in a process. I f--- things up all the time and through a tremendous number of gracious people, I have become better than I used to be. But it’s not a destination, it’s not like I’ve arrived. It’s a continuing journey where you — hopefully — get better and better. It’s a scale; it’s not binary.

You will always have new pieces to learn and you will always have new things to do and new responsibilities for grappling with your own privilege.

Evan: There’s no certificate that says you’re woke.

Matt: Right. And you’ll never be woke about everything.

Matt_Wallaert
By Matt Wallaert
Chief Behavioral Officer, Clover Health
By Evan Allgood
Writer

Subscribe

Get the latest behavioral science insights.