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Lessons in Biases from the Olympics

Our biases manifest everywhere--and even during our most celebrated and joyous traditions, they can leave an impact.

In a highly uncertain time, the Olympic games have offered a shred of normalcy this summer. With traditions dating to ancient Greece, this global competition unites the world in celebrating athleticism and national pride. But the commoditization of these athletes and powerful human bias has arguably begun to taint the essence of the games.

When gymnast Simone Biles pulled out of the group and subsequent individual competitions, the incident engendered highly polarizing discussions publicly and privately. Some people respected her decision to withdraw to maintain her mental health; others believed that she needed to be tougher. This debate demonstrates how people's perspectives are shaped by their biases.

Bias is Universal

Each of us has biases informed by our past experiences, interactions, and conversations. Creating bias is a fundamental step of our categorizing process; from a young age, we categorize people and things to understand the world better and make decisions more quickly. Our individual biases are rooted in this kind of categorization.

A child with happy experiences of Santa Claus may decide that anyone with a white beard is a good person. Another child who had a terrifying Santa Claus experience may view all men with beards as dangerous. This example illustrates how our category-based biases begin.

Biases are not always negative--they can sometimes protect us from dangerous people and circumstances. Still, if we maintain our prejudices without testing them against new information, they can lead to racism, sexism, and ageism, (among others)--all of which engender hurtful rhetoric and, ultimately, hate.

Why Should We Challenge Our Biases?

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  experience. Otherwise, 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. When we're intentionally more mindful, for example, it allows us to contextualize and empathize, making it less likely that we filter other people's behaviors through the lens of our own bias.

In the aforementioned case of Simone Biles, most people failed to practice mindfulness and empathy. Instead, their own biases, prejudices, and insecurities caused them to lose sight of the pressures she had to juggle--as the greatest gymnast of all time, an Olympic athlete, and a black athlete--along with the pressure of managing others' expectations and her own mental health.

Challenging the Media's Bias

As we address our own biases, we can better evaluate the information that informed them. The current state of news media is a prime example. Histrionic, sometimes inaccurate headlines can cater directly to particular audiences and perpetuate hurtful biases. While not true across the board, we must be increasingly cognizant of such large-scale bias as we work to mitigate our own biases and understand their origins.

Biases in reporting on the Olympics is another example. In 2012, Science Daily outlined two striking studies on biases in Olympics commentary. The studies revealed that in general, reporters attributed the success of female athletes to luck, and the success of their male counterparts to skill and hard work. This wasn't the only disparity--coverage of athletes of different races and nationalities was also riddled with biases, whether intentional or not.

To challenge these biases presented by the media, we first have to acknowledge and be mindful when we encounter 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-- equating withdrawal with failure--and equating failure in the Olympics with a diminished image of that country on the world stage.

To challenge preconceptions and start a productive conversation regarding Biles' circumstances and what they mean for professional athletes worldwide, we have to consider all points of view--particularly those of the athletes themselves. 

Broader Bias in the Olympics

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

The Olympics should celebrate the collective achievements of elite athletes. The recent Tokyo games presented several shining examples of what the Olympics are all about: two competing high-jumpers chose to share the gold medal podium as opposed to competing in a single-winner "jump off;" a handful of underrepresented countries won their very first medals; and Simone Biles enthusiastically cheered on her teammates from the sidelines after making a decision that best served her. Biles eventually competed in the individual balance beam event and took home a bronze, but her most inspiring success 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. The impact our biases--particularly unconscious biases--can have in the workplace are vast and, unfortunately, quite common. They can manifest in job specifications and hiring decisions; play a role in promotions, 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. Following are a few steps your company can take to best challenge and reduce unconscious bias in the workplace, and better position it for long-term success:

  • take the time to learn what biases are and where they appear
  • be mindful of which unconscious biases you carry into your daily interactions
  • be accountable and monitor each other for unconscious biases, and 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
  • decelerate the decision-making process to reduce the likelihood of less informed, biased decisions

Ultimately, it's up to each and every one of us to cultivate change for a more tolerant, understanding, and equitable tomorrow.

A recent MBA graduate of Northeastern University, Peter brings deep and diverse experience in brand management, innovation, and design to Enspira. Prior to graduate school, he began his career in New York City as a freelance brand consultant and multimedia producer for tech startups. After co-founding his own restaurant consultancy, he returned to Boston in 2017 to pursue his MBA with a focus in corporate innovation. A lifelong musician and adventurer, Peter enjoys playing music, hiking, and watching his favorite TV shows with his partner in Boston, MA.

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