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Bias Barriers – How Our Biases Get In The Way Of Connecting With People

Written by: Misty Nodine, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


We all have biases – conscious or unconscious. Biases are built into our neurology. We cannot avoid them. Our biases have deep roots in how we have evolved to protect ourselves and to stay safe, both physically and emotionally. At the same time, these innate biases also get in the way of meaningful connections with other people – especially people who are different from us. Yet, we need connection with others to support our well-being and gain resilience. Our need for physical and emotional safety works against our need for connection.

I recall one time when I struggled to work with a particular colleague. I was working as a computer scientist at the time. The culture my male colleague came from did not see women as competent to work professionally. He also reminded me of someone I disliked. These biases made working together a huge struggle, for the two of us and also our manager. Being aware of the types of biases that block connection is a first step towards moving past them safely. This article discusses some of the biases that affect our social relationships specifically and how these biases can interact in ways that amplify their ability to disconnect us. It then looks at approaches we can use to help us move past our biases in ways that still support our own emotional and physical safety.

Biases That Affect Our Social Relationships

First Impression Bias And Confirmation Bias

The first impression bias comes from the fact that we let our first impression of someone dominate the image we have of them and the future expectations we have of them. One example of this is the halo effect, where a good-looking person is often perceived as more competent and intelligent – even though there is no real correlation between good looks and intelligence. On the opposite extreme, if someone has physical characteristics that we find unattractive, we may perceive them as stupid or incompetent. The situation in which we meet someone, our sensory and emotional state at the time, our personality, and our past experiences are some of the many factors that contribute to the first impression we have of someone. Yet, none of these things are really under the control of the other person at all. None of these are accurate indicators of their abilities and competencies. Thus, first impressions are likely to be inaccurate. The first impression we have of someone is amplified by our confirmation biases. For example, if our first impression of someone is that they are very competent, we will tend to notice all the things they do well and ignore all the things they do poorly. Similarly, if our first impression is that they are incompetent, we will notice all the things they do poorly and ignore all the things they do well. Thus, the first impression serves as an anchor for all our later judgments. The first impression bias and the confirmation bias work to disconnect us because they actively push us away from potentially valuable relationships simply because the first impression was not good. Yet, as we stated, first impressions are often inaccurate and misleading. As a side note, I do think that this one-two punch of the first impression bias and the confirmation bias is related to why many companies tend to hire confident people as opposed to competent people. Confident people give off an attractive first impression – and when your first impression of someone is positive, you are biased towards seeing only positive things about them throughout the interview process.

Actor-Observer Bias And Fundamental Attribution Error

People’s behavior is driven by many factors – situations and environments, general emotional state, skills and capabilities around self-regulation, knowledge about what to do in a situation, internal moral inclinations, and so many other factors. We all differ in terms of the amount of adversity and challenge we have faced in life. We all respond differently to similar situations. We all have breaking points. Fundamental attribution error is the bias that encourages us to judge another person’s behavior as being caused by innate personal characteristics or innate moral deficiencies and not take into account the situational factors that may be affecting their behavior. For example, we may say that the person who is constantly a few minutes late to work is just lazy and does not want to get up in time. Yet, the person actually may be late because they have had to take on a caring responsibility at home that leaves them exhausted or had to drop off a child at school. As another example, a person may have difficulty participating in a meeting because the meeting room causes them sensory issues, but the lack of participation may be attributed to a lack of interest or to laziness. Fundamental attribution error is one side of the one-two punch called the actor-observer bias. The actor-observer bias states that we tend to explain our own behavior with situational causes and explain other people’s behavior with innate personal characteristics (attribution error). Related to this, when others try to explain their behavior situationally, we tend to think they are making excuses and to write off what they are saying. The trouble with attributing a person’s behavior to their innate characteristics is that the natural follow-on to that is to assume that those behaviors are unchangeable. Yet, if the behaviors are actually arising from a situational cause, then changing the situation will improve the behaviors. This can be true in both the immediate situation and in the broader social context. On the flip side, if we tend to assume all of our own bad behaviors are situational, then we do not open ourselves up to reflection about areas where we may need to work on in order to become more connected and resilient. The actor-observer bias works to disconnect us because it puts a wall of judgment between us and the people we see as behaving badly or inappropriately. While that wall can be useful in situations of immediate physical and emotional safety, any thin-slice judgments need to be reassessed in the longer term after gaining more experience with the person. Being judgmental towards someone in the long term gets in the way of connecting with them and understanding the actual roots of that behavior. Understanding those roots, however, is essential to developing a successful plan around that behavior. Putting in place a successful plan improves everyone’s safety and gives everyone a sense of working together on the same team.

In Group Favoritism vs. Out-Group Negativity

Unlike the first two pairs of biases we looked at, in-group favoritism and out-group negativity relate to the fact that we tend to form social groups. We tend to gravitate towards people we view as similar to us – perhaps we share cultural experiences, or common interests, or have similar backgrounds. In other words, groups tend to form around cultural identity, where people share a common set of social norms and beliefs. The people who share some form of cultural identity with us are members of our in-groups. The people with whom we do not share cultural identity are members of out-groups. We relate differently to people based on whether they are in our in-group or our out-groups. The in-group favoritism bias states that, for people in our in-group, we tend to do things like evaluating their actions more favorably and providing them with better resources and opportunities. In contrast, out-group negativity states that, for people outside our in-groups, we tend to evaluate their actions less favorably and provide them with fewer or worse resources and opportunities. There is a growing body of evidence that these biases are innate and rooted in the activity of the hormone oxytocin. It is easier to connect with similar people because it is easier to communicate with one another – there is a larger pool of shared vocabulary and similar mental models. This becomes evident when you look at muted group theory, which says that we fail to enable people in the out-groups to even express themselves, due to insufficient language models for describing their experience. In other words, the dominant group in a setting defines the vocabulary – and thus for situations that the dominant group does not understand, even though a situation is real, the non-dominant group may have no vocabulary to explain it. While in-group favoritism strengthens our connection with a set of people, out-group negativity disconnects us because we use our natural tendency to form social groups to set up an artificial us-vs-them situation. Mentally placing a person in some out-group impedes our ability to see them objectively, with their own strengths, experiences, and ideas. We fall into the tendency to disregard them – by muting them, stereotyping them, or just leaving them out. In-group favoritism fosters connection with people like us, which also strengthens feelings of disconnection and rejection in those not in the in-group.

Becoming Less Biased

Our natural, innate biases work against the social benefit of acceptance and collaboration, both because they are individually disconnecting and because they interact among themselves to make that disconnection worse. In this section, we look at four ways that can help you move past your biases and connect better with others. They are:

  1. Listen non-judgmentally to people who are different from you.

  2. Look for common ground.

  3. Expand your language and understanding to encompass your ability to talk about their experiences their way.

  4. Change your lens to start out assuming that a person’s difficult behavior is related to situational or experiential challenges, as opposed to moral deficits.

Listen Broadly And Non-Judgmentally

Listening to someone who is sharing their stories with you is a potent antidote to bias. As we get to know and understand a person better, our natural bias tendencies will lean towards our accepting and supporting them. We tend to accept the known and reject the unknown. When the unknown becomes known, we move naturally toward acceptance and friendship. Some approaches that help encourage someone to share their stories include:

  • Ask open-ended questions. Open-ended questions allow the person freedom in how to answer and what to say. E.g., What do you want? What is your thought process? How do you feel about that?

  • Be curious. Assume that when you don’t understand something there is space to learn.

  • Respect their boundaries. Don’t make them feel obligated to share more than they are comfortable saying.

  • Stay in the listening lane. Leave space for them to talk, explore, and process. Reflect back what you think they are saying to help refine your understanding of them.

  • Be non-judgmental. Avoid moralizing, asking why questions, or telling them how to fix things.

  • Thank them for sharing with you. Tell them you are available to listen to them again.

Look For Common Ground

Meeting and starting a conversation with someone very different from you is challenging. Empathy is hard when you do not share very many common experiences with someone else. At the beginning of the relationship, there is also no shared experience to draw on. Another way of looking at this is there is very little shared cultural identity, so your mind naturally puts that person in an out-group from the start.

Common ground provides a pathway of communication, which leads to trust. Once you discover, for instance, that you both are interested in a particular sports team, or you both like to garden, then this area of common ground brings you together in some aspect of culture. This shared interest then signals in-group thoughts to both of you, your communication becomes less guarded, and trust begins to emerge.

Expand Your Language And Understanding

Looking at the concept of muting, we see that muting happens because the listener has no good language or mental framework for understanding what the speaker is trying to tell them. When there is a particular group dominating a social setting, the members of that group do not have the language or mental framework to understand what the members of any of the non-dominant groups are saying. Empathy requires that you develop a framework to bridge these gaps in language and understanding. This starts with listening and trying to grasp what the experience of the other person is like. It continues with accepting their experiences and language as valid. However, acceptance also means that you can speak with them on their terms, understand their language, and be able to understand what they are saying from something approximating their mental framework.

Change Your Lens

When a person conflicts with you or behaves in a way you find unacceptable, functional attribution error pushes you in the direction of assuming there is some moral – and hence unchangeable – flaw in their character, such as laziness, greed, or a bad temper. Changing your lens means consciously changing those initial assumptions so that you work from the premise that the challenges come from situational causes or perhaps undeveloped skills. In other words, you give them the same benefit of the doubt that you tend to give yourself. This lens change is especially important when the person you are interacting with is disadvantaged towards you in some way, perhaps because you are in a dominant group and they are not, or because they are disabled either innately or by society, or because they do not have the depth of supportive resources and relationships that you do. You cannot fully grasp their situation and thus have no basis on which to judge their morals. What does this lens change do for you?

  • It generates some common ground because it gives you empathy for their situation.

  • It helps you understand that the situation is solvable and that things can change.

  • It frees you from assumptions that are getting in the way of resolving a difficult situation.

  • It opens up the door for collaboration.

  • It provides a path to strengthening your relationship with them.

Key Takeaways

Many of our innate biases interact in ways that cause us to disconnect from others and to fragment as a culture – especially when interacting with people who are different and whom we do not understand. Yet, as I wrote in my previous article, connecting with others is one of the four connection types that sustain our well-being and resilience.

We can work against our biases by listening non-judgmentally to people who are different from us, looking for common ground, expanding our receptive language and mental frameworks to incorporate their language and ways of thinking, and changing our lens on their behavior to start with the assumption that any difficulties they are having come from situational or environmental causes.

For further thinking on this topic, specifically related to in-groups and out-groups, you can read a related article I have written here.

I coach businesses and families on relationships, with a focus on neurodiversity. Follow me on my website, Facebook, and Medium. You can contact me for coaching here.


Misty Nodine, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Misty Nodine’s coaching and blogging practices focus on communication, acceptance and belonging. They are guided by her hard-earned life lessons in crossing various kinds of cultural barriers, and in accepting and valuing each others’ differences and strengths. Misty has always been a bit different herself. She has spent time in many countries whose culture differed significantly from her own. She was a computer scientist for decades – and as an older female was almost always the oddball in her group. These experiences drive her passion for helping others learn to value people who are under-utilized and under-appreciated due to difficulties with communication, empathy, and inclusion.



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