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Lessons in Biases from the Olympics

We bring our biases everywhere, and even during our most celebrated and joyous traditions, they can leave an impact.

In our current state of uncertainties, the Olympic games have offered us a shred of normalcy this summer. With traditions that go back to ancient Greece, these global competitions bring the world together to celebrate the athleticism and pride of our athletes; however, the commoditization of these athletes and powerful human bias has begun to taint the true essence of the games.

When gymnast Simone Biles pulled out of the group and subsequent individual competitions in the following days, the incident garnered highly polarizing discussions, both publicly and privately. Some people recognized that we need to respect her mental health. Others believed that she needed to be tougher and that her decision made the US look weak. No matter your stance, your point of view is shaped by your biases.

Bias is Universal

Every one of us has biases sculpted by our past experiences, interactions, and conversations. Creating bias is a fundamental step of our categorizing process. From a young age, we categorize things and people to understand the world better and make decisions more quickly. This categorization is at the root of our unique, individual biases.

A child with happy experiences of Santa Claus, for example, may decide that anyone with a white beard is a good person. On the other hand, another child who had a terrifying experience with Santa Claus may see all men with beards as dangerous. This is the beginning of our category-based biases.

Biases are not always negative, as they can protect us from dangerous people and circumstances. Still, if we hold onto our prejudices without testing them against new information, those biases can become problematic. These are the biases that commonly lead to racism, sexism, ageism, etc. These are the biases that lead to hurtful rhetoric and, ultimately, hate.

Why Should We Challenge Our Biases?

Category-based biases are crucial to our development as children; however, it's imperative to our growth as human beings that we recognize, question, and challenge our biases as we gather additional information and learn from life experiences. If we don't, our biases limit ourselves. They can blind us to new opportunities, people, cultures, and learning.

As Berkeley's Greater Good Magazine notes,  we can never completely eliminate our biases, but we can dramatically decrease them. For example, when we are intentionally more mindful, it allows us to contextualize and empathize, making it less likely that we attribute other people's behaviors to our own bias.

When we look back on the discussions involving Simone Biles, most people failed to practice mindfulness and empathy. Instead, their own biases, prejudices, and even insecurities made the conversation about themselves, losing sight of what it means to be the greatest gymnast of all time and the weight that crown carries, what it means to be an Olympic athlete, what it means to be a black athlete, what it means to be an athlete juggling others' expectations with their own mental health, and everything in between.

Challenging the Media's Bias

As we address our own personal biases, we have the opportunity to better evaluate the information that informed them. The current state of news media is a prime example. They put out dramatic, emotion-inducing headlines that cater directly to their audience despite their lack of accuracy or hurtful biases that they perpetuate. Of course, this is not true across the board, but we all have to be increasingly wary of as we work to reduce our own biases and understand where they come from.

This also applies to reporting in the Olympics, and it's not a new concern. Back in 2012, Science Daily outlined two poignant studies on biases present in Olympics commentary. The studies show that, in general, reporters attributed the success of female athletes to 'luck,' whereas they attributed the same success of their male counterparts to 'skill' and hard work.

These weren't the only identified disparities. For example, coverage of athletes across different races and nationalities was also riddled with biases, whether intentional or not.

To challenge these biases presented in the media, we first have to acknowledge and be mindful of when we see them. Does the headline and/or subsequent article offer context or additional points of view? Is the intent to sway the reader's opinion clear? Does the author use inclusive language that's consistent across genders and ethnicities?

In Biles' case, several news outlets neglected to consider her frame of mind or mental wellbeing. Instead, they clung to common biases regarding competition, where withdrawal equates to failure, and biases that failure in the Olympics equates to a poor reflection of the country the athlete represents. To challenge preconceptions and have a productive conversation regarding Biles' circumstances and what that means for professional athletes of all sports worldwide, we have to consider all points of view, particularly those of the athletes themselves. 

Broader Bias in the Olympics

The Olympics is all about celebrating the athletes and the countries they represent, but we should be wary of our own nationally centric bias when rooting for our home country. A study published last year, titled The Olympic paradox: The Olympics and intergroup biases, suggests that the Olympics bring out intergroup (us vs. them) biases reflected in people's actions towards other nationalities, particularly when there are already negative stereotypes in place.

The Olympics should celebrate the achievements of all athletes together. These recent Tokyo games have presented several shining examples of what the Olympics are all about: two competing high-jumpers chose to share the gold medal podium opposed to competing in a single-winner 'jump off'; a handful of underrepresented countries produced their very first medal performances; and Simone Biles, arguably the greatest gymnast of all time and the athlete facing more pressure and expectation than any other, enthusiastically cheering on her teammates from the sidelines after making the decision that best served her. Biles eventually competed in the individual balance beam event, taking home bronze, but her most inspiring success of this year's summer Olympics was forcing us to change the conversation around professional athletes and challenge the biases that have gone uncontested for generations.

Bias in the Workplace

We carry our biases with us everywhere we go. Whether discussing the current summer Olympics with friends and family or in a workplace meeting, our biases are present. The impacts our biases, particularly unconscious biases, can have in the workplace are vast and, unfortunately, quite common. They can show up in job specifications and who you decide to hire; they can play a role in who gets that promotion and can even influence who you trust and value more on your company's executive team. 

It can be challenging to address our collective biases in any environment, but there are a few steps your company can take to best challenge and reduce unconscious bias in the workplace to better set up its culture for long term success:

  • take the time to learn what biases are and where they show up
  • be mindful of which unconscious biases you carry with you into your daily interactions
  • be accountable and monitor each other for unconscious biases, and then have a respectful conversation regarding their impact
  • assess and identify where biases are most likely to affect your company and implement guardrails to avoid bias-creep in the future
  • slow down the decision-making process reduces the likelihood of making a less informed, biased decision

Ultimately, it begins with each and every one of us to ebb the tide of change for a more tolerant, understanding, and equitable tomorrow.

Peter Lesser

Peter is a recent MBA graduate of Northeastern University with a vast, diverse background in brand management, innovation, design and more. Prior to graduate school, he began his career in New York City as a freelance brand consultant and multimedia producer for tech startups. Over time, he shifted into the hospitality industry, co-founding his own restaurant consultancy that worked with new and struggling enterprises. In 2017, he returned to Boston to pursue his MBA with a focus in corporate innovation. Peter is a lifelong musician and adventurer. When not working, you can find him playing music, hiking deep into the mountains, or watching his favorite TV shows with his partner in Boston, MA.

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