Here’s How to Overcome Your Biases

A new book shows how taking stock of our unconscious biases can lead to enlightenment.
By: | October 10, 2018 • 4 min read
diversity and inclusion

These are challenging times in society and in the workplace, where there are so many questions about bias. While many people consider themselves supportive of equality, diversity and inclusion, they may have hidden biases that prevent them from growing into better versions of themselves. In her new book, psychologist Dolly Chugh, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, shows how taking deep stock of those unconscious biases can lead to enlightenment. The Person You Mean To Be: How Good People Fight Bias also encourages readers to see themselves as “good-ish,” a term that Chugh says leaves room for personal growth rather than condemnation. Katherine Milkman, Wharton professor of operations, information and decisions, attended graduate school with Chugh, where they collaborated on a research project about bias. Milkman recently joined the Knowledge@Wharton radio show on SiriusXM to interview Chugh about the book.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: What inspired you to write this book?

Dolly Chugh: These are challenging times. I’m a scholar who studies these issues, but I’m also a person living in the world, struggling through them just like everyone else is. I teach, and I would mix up two students of the same race when they don’t look anything alike. I would assign a reading and then have a female student email me and say that she found the reading sexist. That would send me into a big defensive zone: How could I have assigned a sexist reading? Then I would reread it and think, “Oh, actually I may have had a blind spot.”


My own ups and downs in navigating these issues was coming up against my knowledge that we have research out there that can help us. My decision to write this book came from a place of taking the research that I and others are doing out of the dusty academic journals and bringing it into the world, where the rest of us are living in these challenging times … .

Katherine Milkman: Can you talk specifically about what’s in the book?

Chugh: I call it the smart, semi-bold person’s guide for diversity and inclusion. It’s an approach to thinking about diversity and inclusion that really begins with thinking about yourself and the ways in which you may inadvertently be holding some unconscious biases or benefiting from systemic bias. I do everything from defining those words and offering a little bit of research, to telling stories about people who have been thinking about this and how they’ve struggled with it, and then offering some concrete tips about how to actually navigate those issues.

Milkman: I was really taken with your discussion of unconscious bias in the book. What is that and why does it matter?

Chugh: Unconscious bias, which is sometimes referred to as implicit bias, has been in our national discussion a lot in the last year or two. What I’m trying to offer is not a magic-bullet solution, because as social scientists we have not come up with that yet, but an approach to thinking about ourselves as works in progress, people who are growing and learning and beginning to see things that may not have been visible to us before.

One of the things we’re trying to do is simply audit or notice ways in which sometimes our unconscious biases leak into our behaviors. I tell a story in the book of a very senior executive, Rick Klau at Google Ventures. Despite seeing himself as someone who was advocating for women and underrepresented minorities on his team and in the workplace, he was surprised at his results on an unconscious bias measure called the Implicit Association Test (IAT). He started looking more closely at the places where his influence in his role really shows up, like who’s in his contact list — he does a lot of matching funding with business plans and opportunities — and he noticed that only 20 percent of his contacts were female. He noticed his social media feed was only 20 percent female. And this surprised him. This was a noticing process that allowed him to see ways in which he was letting perhaps some unconscious biases slip into how he was doing his work. He then had an action item: He was able to go expand his network to balance it out.

Milkman: That’s a great anecdote, and I love that part of the book. One of the points you make is about having a growth mindset and how important it is for building and fighting bias. Could you talk about that?

Chugh: Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford, is the originator of the term growth mindset. It’s a term that explains our beliefs about our abilities and whether those abilities can grow and change, or whether they’re fixed, which would be a fixed mindset. I could have a growth mindset about my ability to learn a new sport, but might have a fixed mindset about my ability to learn how to draw.