All human beings are biased today, in part, because it increased the chances of survival in our evolutionary past. Paying more attention to a negative experience rather than a positive one, for example, allowed our predecessors to better survive in a dangerous world.

“Having a bias comes from exercising a heuristic, a shortcut we take that allows us to distill information to make judgements that, on average, are correct,” says Darden Professor Melissa Thomas-Hunt. “It’s when a heuristic becomes laden with incorrect societal assumptions that stereotyping comes in.”

Many of us have been told that stereotyping is bad and leads us to believe, for example, that men are more competent leaders than women. That kind of thinking leads to disparities in the workplace against women, such as lower pay, unfair performance evaluations and lack of promotions.

Thomas-Hunt and Michelle M. Duguid, a professor at Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, wanted to determine if educating people about bias would indeed lessen it. The surprise findings were a resounding no. In fact, the opposite is true.

In their experiments, they told some people that stereotyping was rare and told others it was common. Afterward, they asked for the participant’s opinion of women. Those told stereotyping was common rated women as less career-oriented and more family-oriented. In another experiment, in which managers were told that many people stereotype, the results were similar. The managers were less willing to work with women.

Thomas-Hunt, the founding academic director of the Behavioral Research at Darden Lab and an expert in teams and negotiations, says “stereotyping is prevalent and occurs across all domains.”

Their findings focused on biases against the elderly, the overweight and women, suggesting a robustness across “stereotyped characteristics that are immutable (gender and the effects of aging), inevitable (aging) or changeable (weight). The results were reported in the 13 October 2014 issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology.

“If we tell people everybody is biased, they allow themselves to stay biased. As individuals, we tend to do what other people are doing,” says Thomas-Hunt. “We’re not motivated to work against our bias. So if everyone stereotypes, I allow myself to stereotype also. At minimum, there’s no motivation to change.”

Thomas-Hunt says people “need to be made aware that many other people are working against their biases. Then we actually reduce our stereotyping behavior.”

And people don’t want to stereotype. “Most people don’t intentionally stereotype,” says Thomas-Hunt. “The bias is operating outside our awareness. But we need to be motivated to counter it and bring it to our awareness.” Otherwise, we may be making poor decisions that keep us from identifying and leveraging the best talent. “If we know there are lots of people actively working against their bias, we’re now creating a new norm,” she says.

The difficulty is that managers, executives and working people “already have a lot on their plates.” It takes a lot of energy to counter our natural inclination to stereotype, she says.

So how can businesses tackle a seemingly intractable problem such as stereotyping? Thomas-Hunt says leaders have to structure processes correctly to weed out bias.

“Organizations need to put into place certain standardized processes that give managers less discretion in how we evaluate people,” she says. “It takes full-time concentration to fight bias on our own. That’s unrealistic.”

Take hiring, for example. If the interview questions are designed to specifically assess skills and are uniformly asked of all job candidates, then bias will be minimized, she says. A more difficult situation to tackle would be that of assessing employees, which is often done through informal “micro assessments of individuals” based on numerous daily encounters.

In that situation, in which bias can easily sneak in, Thomas-Hunt suggests that managers be required to assess in a much more structured way by writing down notes on performance every so often. “They’re called thin slices,” she says. “If you take thin slices — make assessments over time in writing — it leads to a better, more fair assessment of an employee’s performance.”

“It’s important to understand the nuances of our biases,” she says. “Having structures in place are absolutely critical. Then, as individuals, we don’t have to monitor ourselves 24 hours a day.”

But Thomas-Hunt says fixing biases may be easier if we educate people at an earlier point in their lives — as preschoolers or even infants. In one study, white infants could detect those unfamiliar faces that looked different from them. “They’re not thinking bad or good person,” she says. “But then they become infused with societal values over time. There is an adaptive component to this that is no longer necessary.”

Preliminary studies also show, for example, if a mother works outside the home, the son or daughter of that mother develops a more positive view of women in the workplace.

She is also gathering data from various military branches on whether there is an experience at a “critical juncture that mitigates bias.” In the Army in particular, which is highly integrated, even at the officer level, would this greater exposure to different races mean less bias in evaluating a candidate for promotion later in life?”

Eradicating or reducing bias would strengthen businesses and the bottom line, says Thomas-Hunt. “For organizations to succeed, they need to fully leverage the talent they have.”

Melissa Thomas-Hunt co-authored “Condoning Stereotyping? How Awareness of Stereotyping Prevalence Impacts Expression of Stereotypes,” published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, with Michelle M. Duguid.

About the Expert

Melissa Thomas-Hunt

John D. Forbes Distinguished Professor of Business Administration; Special Adviser

Melissa Thomas-Hunt is professor at both the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. An expert in in leadership, team dynamics and negotiations, she researches the factors that unleash, leverage and amplify the contributions made by individuals — particularly women, underrepresented individuals and numerical minorities. 

Thomas-Hunt is the former head of global diversity and belonging at Airbnb, where she led the strategy and execution of global internal diversity, inclusion, equity and belonging programs, and she retains an external senior adviser role focused on advancing research on connection and belonging. Prior to her role at Airbnb, she served as vice provost for inclusive excellence and professor of management at the Vanderbilt University Owen School of Management. There she was responsible for advancing equity, diversity and inclusion across Vanderbilt's community of staff, students and faculty. Previous to her time at Vanderbilt, Thomas-Hunt served as global chief diversity officer and professor at Darden.

B.S., Princeton University; M.Sc. and Ph.D., J.L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management, Northwestern University