Public Release: 

Outsmarting human minds

Online project aims to help people overcome hidden biases

Harvard University

When it comes to some of the most important decisions we make - how much to buy or sell a house for, whom to hire for a job, or how to plan for the future - there's strong scientific evidence that your brain may be playing tricks on you.

Luckily, Mahzarin Banaji has an idea of what you can do: Understand how your mind works, so that you can learn to outsmart it.

The Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics and Chair of the Department of Psychology is launching a new project - dubbed Outsmarting Human Minds - aimed at using short videos and podcasts to expose the hidden biases people hold, and explore ways to combat them.

"The behavioral sciences give us insights into what gets in the way of reaching our professional goals, of being true to our own deepest values" Banaji said. "The science is not new, but its message is still one most people have difficulty grasping and understanding."

To expose and combat those biases, Banaji and research fellow Olivia Kang, with funding from Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) and a grant from Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences developed the Outsmarting Human Minds project as a way to deliver the most up-to-date thinking about hidden biases in an engaging way.

"Everyone wants to know what's happening in their minds, and they want to know what they can do to make better decisions," Kang said. "The science is out there; the challenge is getting it to the public in a way that captures their interest."

The impetus for the project comes in part from Banaji's role as Senior Adviser to Edgerley Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Mike Smith on faculty development.

Speaking of that role, Banaji said, "I try to expose what the mind sciences have taught us about how we make decisions. The hope is that the faculty will put this information to use ... in decisions about how to imagine the future of their disciplines ... to open doors that will allow the best to enter and thrive" Banaji said.

Over the years, Banaji has taught on this topic to any number of organizations, from corporations to non-profits to the military and other governmental agencies, and participants' first question is often about what they could do to continue to become aware of and confront hidden bias.

"It's my hope that these modules will produce "ah ha" moments, that they will surprise and intrigue." Banaji said. "I want to put the science in the hands of people - or rather, in the heads of people - and have them ask: How can I outsmart my own mind?  How can I be the person I want to be?"

Banaji, however, emphasized that watching the videos or listening to the podcasts isn't enough to combat hidden bias.

"Learning brings awareness and understanding.  It cannot itself put an end to the errors we make. To achieve corrections that will matter to society, we must learn to behave differently," Banaji said. "You'll see what I mean: If I teach you about how your body burns calories, will you, at the end of my teaching, have lost any weight?  It's the same here - learning about our minds is a necessary, but not sufficient, step to ensure change."

To help individuals combat hidden biases, Banaji believes organizations need to think hard about changing procedures and policies that will result in more objective and accurate decision making.

"We want to deliver this information to people in a way that doesn't make them feel that they're a bad person if they have these biases. The fact is, we all do," Kang added. "This is about acknowledging that hidden biases are a product of how we're wired and the culture we live in. And then agreeing that we want to do something about it - that we can use this knowledge to improve the decisions we make in life and at work."


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