The recent George Floyd tragedy has sparked a global outcry over inequality, which demands to reform police and state institutions. While this is a noble cause, it’s one thing to call for structural reform and another to implement it.
Nowadays, I spend most of my time teaching people how to use psychology for websites and campaigns. However, I didn’t get a PhD in behavior change to specialize in what makes people click on buttons.
Unbeknownst to many of my students, a large part of my career was focused on using technology for social change. That means changing laws, policies, and institutional agendas.
Upstream and downstream change
There are two popular paths to changing society: downstream and upstream approaches.
The downstream approach is based on getting people to take voluntary action. The second way is through the upstream reform of institutions and laws, which is where I spent much of my career.
To get results, you normally need to go upstream and downstream at the same time. While upstream change creates the policy framework that enforces lasting change, it’s the downstream work that fosters citizen support.
As a practitioner, impact evaluator and scientist who has worked on the front-lines of many social change programs, I know how hard people work to implement real change. Unfortunately, very few of these efforts materialize into real results.
Despite the hype, you’ll rarely hook a population on a social change program. But, with a good behavioral science approach, you’ll normally make a modest and significant impact.
Will the global drive for equality fade away once the passion subsides? Or are we seeing long-lasting change that will make it into the history books? To better guess which way this social movement will go, we have to examine what’s being proposed.
Should we disempower and educate the police?
Police reform is a controversial subject.
If you disempower the police too much, you risk empowering criminals and growing crime. Years ago when the UK stopped police from using guns, there was a surge in gun crime till the UK police set up tactical marksmen.
If you overpower the police, communities feel like they’re under military rule. This fosters resentment from overpoliced citizens.
What’s the difference between a military and a police force? One key difference is their level of access to lethal force.
In the USA where almost anyone can buy guns (including military-grade assault rifles like the AR-15), it’s hard to see how any US police can be disempowered.
It’s also hard to see how police will ever feel secure and lose their fear of being shot on the job, as anyone can get a gun in the USA. It’s also hard to see how anyone who the police distrust, will ever feel they’re being treated with respect, as the level of distrust increases with the threat of gun violence.
I think the free flow of guns is the elephant in the room, that many people ignore when discussing these issues. The countries with unarmed police also normally have unarmed citizens or extremely tight regulations on access to weapons.
So how can we get it right? Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers to this question. It’s best answered through a systematic review of best practices in community policing.
What I want to discuss in this opinion piece is how we deal with systematic bias. Not just the bias that makes some police treat groups differently, but the bias that impacts social structures and institutions.
When we talk about removing bias, it’s not a straightforward task of identifying the good v.s. bad biases, and then fixing them. We cannot see these biases, because they’re the structure on which we perceive reality.
What’s more complex is that those who fight bias are sometimes the worst bigots themselves. I’ve always agreed with this quote, “Where they burn books, they will also burn people.” Thought police are dangerous.
Those who fight bias, often push their own “good” biases to replace what they deem the “bad” bias. They can turn into hunt and destroy witch hunts.
So when it comes to fixing police bias, this is not about removing the bad people who think the wrong way. What we need to do is understand how biases work, and develop police cultures that work for the communities they serve.
Can we eliminate bias, or are we hardwired for bias? Is equality a social construct, or are we genetically predisposed to react emotionally when confronting inequality?
As a starter, here are a few interesting articles/videos that share some scientific views on these subjects.
Are we biased towards equality?
Bias is normally a negative thing, but what about the emotions that bias us towards equality? You’d probably call this a good, or ethical bias.
Mammal studies suggest that the concept of equality was not invented during the French Revolution. Instead, it’s hard-wired into our emotional systems. I wanted to share a classic video and paper by primatologist Frans de Waal that shows how equality transcends humanity:
The study shows that when primates receive unequal compensation for the same work as others, they become angry and start to disrupt the process. This response affects both groups, since sometimes the primate that received an unfair advantage will also rebel against an unjust situation.
Similar studies have been conducted on other animals. One showed that wolves become so enraged by inequality that they suddenly start destroying their cage.
Another fascinating aspect of research that many people don’t know about is “baby ethics”. These studies show that we are born with a sense of right/wrong and express it before we can even speak. When babies see someone disrupt others or act unfairly, they’re more likely to ignore and punish the bad character.
You can get an overview of the baby ethics studies with this video:
Since the research suggests that equality is hardwired into our psyche, it raises the question: “Why is there so much inequality in a species that shows a clear emotional bias towards equality and justice?”. Apparently, there are other emotions shaping our behavior. More often than not, emotions that we don’t always like to admit drive many of us.
Are stereotypes accurate?
This is a loaded question. We’ve been told our entire lives that stereotypes are bad and need to be opposed. However, psychologists and neuroscientists found that humans are hardwired to be biased, and that our biases are more likely to be correct than incorrect. Clearly, there’s a contradiction in humanity here.
Here’s what the neuroscientists have to say about our biases. We’re hardwired to perceive the world through categories, our brain is a classification and prediction machine. Sensory experiences are automatically classified by the brain based on past experiences, which fire emotions that we cannot control.
My view on fighting bias is that if you want to do it, you need to ground your efforts in an understanding of how the human brain works. Otherwise, you risk building interventions that will fail because they’re grounded in an idealistic, not a realistic, understanding of how humans work.
I’m a fan of of Prof. Lee Jussim, a specialist who studies the factual accuracy of human bias. His work is controversial, because it shows that many human biases are more accurate than people like to believe.
Before someone accuses me of promoting racist stereotyping, I want to clarify that I come from a line of people who’ve been managing bias for some time. One of my grandfathers changed his last name from Cugelman to Cook, to avoid religious intolerance. My other grandfather, who was a Canadian Soldier during World War II, said he didn’t need to go to Germany to fight bigotry, because he had so much to deal with in Canada. But for my family who stayed in Europe, some were sent to Dachau, the Nazi concentration camp, and I have no clue about any other family lines, but assume they were all killed for their religion or died in the war.
I’m not promoting racist stereotypes. These are easily manipulated, and exploited. If you read the Art of Rhetoric by Aristotle, written over 2,000 ago, he describes how to enrage a group and foster anger at another group. It’s literally “How to be a populist 101”, which is still in the political playbook, keeping politicians empowered and citizens disempowered.
What I am discussing is our natural inclination to form impressions of people and groups based on patterns. Research on personality shows that our brains keep statistical track of people’s behavior in particular context, and then it instantly notices any deviation. This is an unconscious task that our brain performs in pattern recognition, and on which we judge other people.
Research shows that on average, our biased impressions are more accurate than incorrect. Below is an interesting video discussion with Gad Saad and Lee Jussim on the science of human bias and how the scientific community is struggling to deal with this subject. His neurological argument is that when we don’t have enough information to judge what’s going on in a situation, our brain uses prejudices to assess if a situation is a threat, opportunity, or nothing special. However, once we can assess things more carefully, we rely less on heuristic rules (automatic patterns), and more on the content of our experience.
So yes, we humans are hardwired bigots, but it’s not as straightforward. We use prejudiced to manage unfamiliar patterns, and then quickly update our assessment once we get the facts. We’re both bigots and careful evaluators at once. This is perhaps a more nuanced understanding of bias, that shows separate psychological and neurological processes at play, as part of a system of making assessments.
Another perspective on our predisposition towards bias comes from biology. You may know homeostasis as the body’s system for keeping its internal state at an optimal level. But allostasis is a new view on how the brain is constantly predicting the future, and modifying our physiology to cope with situations. Basically it explains part of how our emotions work, and why we lose control during emotional situations.
Research on allostasis suggests that our brain is constantly assessing situations and then modifying our physiology based on predictions about what will happen next. This ensures that we are always ready for situations, but it means our brain’s classification system has more control over our emotions than we do. This is one of the best papers I’ve read on the subject: “Allostasis: a model of predictive regulation”.
Many dislike Lee Jussim’s research because it runs counter to their idealistic beliefs about humanity. However, there is a glimmer of hope in his research. While people use stereotypes to make quick decisions, research shows that we constantly update our impressions based on our actual experience.
What this suggests is that most of humanity will make an exception to the rule based on their actual experience. In other words, yes, we are biased. But humans are not destined to be entrenched bigots, and institutional bias is something that can be changed.
We have a high capacity to change our entire worldview by breaking stereotypes. However, the irony is that we replace our old stereotype with a new stereotype. But this new stereotype is broader, based on more experience.
We can’t eliminate bias, but we can foster good bias
This natural inclination to update our perspective ensures that most of us will keep evolving our biases from narrow to broader views. We will still see the world in categories, and our emotions will always react without our conscious awareness. However, I believe the broader our world-view, the more we shape the classification engine that creates our biases. This brings us closer to better managing potentially negative internal biases.
Changing perspectives and biases take time, but that’s what we do in social change. Prejudice is not immobile or entrenched. With the right shock or experience, people can change their worldview. I can’t think of a better expert to draw from on how to foster this kind of change than George Lakeoff. He wrote “Don’t Think of an Elephant”, on the psychology of framing.
The basis on which humans perceive the world are fluid and can be positively changed through different experiences.
We cannot reduce bias, as bias alone is not a bad thing that can be eliminated. Instead, our only hope is to increase bias diversity by creating more broad and varied experiences. In this, people’s narrow categories are replaced by broader categories as each of their rules of humanity are contradicted by exceptions to the rule.
To become less biased is to have broader biases. No matter what you do, we’re still going to be biased, since we naturally think in categories.
Given the need to form a more just society, how do we foster a society driven by the types of biases we like while reducing the types of biases we dislike? This is the million dollar question, since multiple processes have attempted to achieve this and failed miserably.
Predicting your unconscious bigotry
How would you feel if I gave you a test that predicted how much of an unconscious bigot you are?
What if I told you that companies already sell this test to corporations? It’s called the Implicit Association Test (IAT).
The IAT is a test that assesses unconscious bias by measuring a person’s incongruent thoughts. For example, if someone is an insular person who feels a strong sense of their community and disregard for outsiders, the idea of “my in-group is good” and “your out-group is bad” is congruent. However, what may be incongruent are “my in-group is bad” and “your out-group is good” views.
If it’s unthinkable for someone who’s so biased to accept that their in-group is bad, it will manifest in the speed at which they complete tasks. This “unthinkable” idea creates incongruence where the brain has to deal with contradictory information, which slows down our ability to process information and respond.
This incongruence manifests in the speed at which people complete tasks, which is what the IAT measures.
As you can imagine, mind-reading tests that claim to tell who’s an unconscious bigot are controversial. This is literally the “thought police” tool for corporations.
The IAT is a serious research tool, but not everyone agrees that you can take it out of the lab and use it for mind reading. I share this view.
The IAT has its advocates, but here’s a discussion by Jordan Peterson on the misuse of unconscious bias testing:
Want to test your biases? Take the IAT here:
Structural reform. Is it possible?
Let’s be honest. The world is unfair.
I’ve always felt that as humans we are hardwired with two opposing motivations: the drive for equality and the drive for an unfair advantage.
You could call these motivators compassion versus greed. But the moment we apply these emotions to our social psyche, things get messy.
The ideal of equality is something to strive for, but it’s difficult to achieve because not everyone wants it.
From my experience, we will never have complete equality because it only takes a few individuals to disrupt a social structure founded on this principle. One blue collar criminal at the bottom or one white-collar criminal at the top can corrode an entire community and the trust that flows in it.
A small percentage of humans have low reacting amygdala and almost no moral compass. They do not care what they do to other humans to get what they want. We call these people psychopaths and sociopaths.
While psychopaths are biologically born this way, sociopaths become this way during their upbringing. Want to get clear on your understanding of psychopaths, sociopaths and narcissists, check out Dr. Ramani’s video on the subject.
There will always be people who don’t care for equality, and they will do what they can to exploit the structures we put up to defend equality. The smart ones will rise to the top, and then use their position to abuse these systems for their personal gain. The foolish ones will sink to the bottom, and use crime to get their unfair advantage.
I think George Orwell nailed it in Animal Farm with the declaration that “Some pigs are more equal than others”. Not everyone wants to admit it, but it’s hard to negate this inconvenient truth. As humans, I believe that we’re cursed to participate in a moral tug-of-war between compassion and greed.
Since most humans are predisposed to feel equality emotions, and a few of us do not feel these emotions, society is destined to always be in a battle between good and evil. As a society, we constantly have to calibrate the pendulum that swings between equal and unequal social structures.
Perhaps this is part of our adaptive social structure. Unless someone can use CRISPR gene editing kits to revise our genetic code, I can’t see inequality ever being removed. To remove greed, and engineer 100% caring humans is to create another species.
Will the mass protests result in structural reform? I don’t know, because that will depend on lobby groups and politicians pushing the momentum forward. Certainly we’ll see idealistic political speeches, but once the anger subsides, the motivation will slow-down and the push for change will slowly lose momentum.
I don’t believe we will ever remove bias, because it’s how humans think and not everyone has a moral compass.
So how do we answer the big questions?
Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers, but here are some thoughts.
For top-down change, we should build diverse institutions and police systems that reflect the communities that they serve. Hiring cadettes with more education would probably be a good bonus too. But cultural similarity will ensure better understanding, more community trust and a broader mindset in the institution.
For bottom-up change, we should foster local community ownership, empowerment, pride and hunger for change. I believe that when a group fights for their rights, that they are more likely to foster the type of motivation required for lasting change.
Good policing requires citizens that care about their community and want to see improvements. If the momentum from the protests can be channeled into a cultural transformation, then that would be a legacy that will probably lead to real results.
This grassroots mobilization is key, as largescale community change is something we measure in decades. You need a revolution-grade level of motivation to see these changes to fruition.
Finally, the biggest challenge I see is in how to keep institutions honest and accountable to the people they serve. This I cannot answer, because I assume all institutions will go through highs and lows as their leadership and cultures transition over time.
But it’s those ethical lows that we’re interested in here. You know you’re in a morally vacant organization when staff believes that their company’s idealistic value statement is total bullshit. People’s sense of connection to an organization is literally measured by asking staff how their personal values fit with the organization’s values. That’s why ethics matters for leadership.
I believe that cultural diversity plays a role in protecting institutions against corruption, but it’s only a small factor. It just takes a few brilliant but unethical individuals to erode an organization’s values and culture.
During my time in government, I’ve worked with many incredible people who I can confirm, do their best to act in the interest of the people they serve. But I’ve also spent time with tyrants, and occasionally took sides, and in some cases, opposed those who work against citizen’s interests.
I’ve been fortunate to represent the United Nations and the Federal Government of Canada, and many organizations. In my time, I did my best to defend their values and to counterbalance those dysfunctional parts of the system.
But corruption is real and institutional cultures can quickly lose their way under incompetent or unethical leadership, or under the influence of a dysfunctional trade union.
I have no clear answer on how to keep institutions honest and accountable to citizens, other than faith in democracy. At least in a democracy, citizens can vote to fix those parts of the system that fail.
When problems are bad enough, politicians can win elections by promising to fix those problems.
I think this is what we’re witnessing in the response to the George Floyd killing and the black lives matter movement. Only time will tell what happens, but one thing is clear, something big is in motion.
By Brian Cugelman with editorial support by Nathaniel Mansfield