By Puja Kanth Alfred, MA, Counseling Psychologist and Certified EFT Practitioner
As EFT practitioners and therapists, it is imperative that we understand the nature of biases. We all like to think of ourselves as unbiased—that we don’t make internal judgments or have opinions and beliefs that influence us in the sessions in a way that might alienate us from our clients, disrupt the rapport with our clients. and negatively impact the session. No, we don’t like thinking this way! But the fact of the matter is that we are all biased.
Laura S. Brown, a clinical and forensic psychologist, says, “By the time that our first client, not to speak of trauma survivor, enters the office, the average psychotherapist will have had multiple experiences of classically conditioned associations with the visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and other sensory cues presented by that individual. The psychotherapist will have bias simply by virtue of being human.”
Evolutionary biology and psychology indicate that human beings are coded to notice difference. Our limbic systems light up and become active in the presence of data telling us that another human differs from us in some way (Brown, n.d.). We already know that our limbic system can overpower our cognitive brain; neurons fire more quickly in the limbic system than in the prefrontal cortex.
If you say that as a practitioner you will be totally unbiased, then it would be presuming that you don’t have limbic system input and no personal history. We will have sensory impressions of our clients and operate on the beliefs and unconscious biases that we acquired early in life—unless we become aware of them.
What Is Bias?
Bias is a broad term that refers to a group of stereotypical beliefs and attitudes about social groups.
Two Kinds of Bias: Explicit and Implicit
Explicit biases are overt and people are aware of them. An example is being biased against people with darker skin tones. Explicit biases result in harassment, exclusion, violence, and other overt displays of power. Usually, people in dominant groups display such bias toward minority/target group members.
Implicit biases are unconscious and difficult to research, but imaging studies have made it possible to understand these biases. These biases operate outside of one’s awareness and are activated unconsciously when a person interacts with people of a certain group. For example, a teacher might favor a student only because the student belongs to a certain group and the teacher might not even be aware of it.
Aversive Bias/Racism: Researchers Dovidio and Gaertner (2005) have uncovered another form of implicit bias called aversive bias or racism. “Aversive bias refers to non-conscious biases held by individuals who consciously avoid using overt expressions of bias. A split emerges in many individuals between their expressed, conscious beliefs, which are not biased, and their non-conscious biases which are consciously aversive to them” (Brown, n.d.).
Aversive biases exist due to denial and disowning, and lead to shame, discomfort, and distancing by people who belong to dominant groups from minority groups.
“Implicit evaluative bias is typically expressed in nonverbal behaviors and affective responses, such as having more uncomfortable interactions, less eye contact, and more blinking” (Amodio & Devine, 2006).
Here’s an interesting fact: the mirror neurons in the target person—the one you have a bias against—can read these nonverbal behaviors and know that you are expressing a bias.
How Do We Acquire Biases?
We acquire our biases during infancy and childhood. Since most of our learning is preverbal and indirect at that time and we don’t have filters to stop the incoming information, a lot of biases are absorbed from our environment.
How Can We transform Our Biases?
Let’s begin with a self-reflection exercise.
Think of a client from a diverse culture that you have worked with in the recent past. Take a moment and list some of the hidden biases that came up when you were working with that client.
These are the questions you can ask yourself (be completely honest in answering):
- During the first meeting: When you spoke to the client for the first time what was your initial impression based on his/her cultural and religious background? Were there any cultural beliefs of the client that bothered you?
- During sessions: Can you identify some hidden biases or anything that irritated or angered you while working with the client?
- Hindrances: Do you feel these biases hindered the session in any way?
- Did any of your beliefs or biases change as the sessions progressed?
Protocol for Transforming Biases
1. Awareness. The first thing is to become aware of the aversive bias. Congratulate yourself that you have become aware.
2. Welcoming. Welcome this aversive bias. Tap while saying this statement:
I am thanking my consciousness for bringing this into my awareness. I am willing to be kind to myself while I acknowledge this.
3. Tap on the guilt and shame. It is normal for guilt and shame to come up. Stay compassionate toward yourself as you work through this. Tap on:
Even though I feel ashamed of myself, I am willing to be kind to myself while I acknowledge this and work through this.
4. Examine the bias. Where does this bias come from? It could have been absorbed from your parents, school, media, etc. Again, be kind to yourself and don’t get stuck in thoughts like “How could I have this bias?" "It is wrong,” etc. Examine the source of the bias to understand it and transform it. Tap on the source, for example:
I acknowledge that I might have acquired this bias in my childhood. I heard my dad frequently disrespecting his next-door neighbor who was an immigrant and I learnt that...I am capable of changing that now. My dad’s beliefs need not influence me anymore.
5. Transform. Tap to be more open and flexible about your client:
Even though I do not agree with my client’s worldview, it is okay.
Even though I do not support his/her views, I realize that I don’t have to change my views to understand him/her.
6. Work with someone. Work with someone who is willing to hold a safe and compassionate space for you to change your biases. I worked with a client who was biased against people with darker skin tones. He felt ashamed about having this bias, but he couldn’t change it. By holding a compassionate and safe space for him, we were able to examine the source of his bias, tap on the childhood incidents, and gradually change the bias.
7. Referral. If you still feel the bias is not budging and is affecting your rapport with the client, refer the client to another practitioner.
“The key ... is to be aware of the patterns we fall into when summing people up, and to learn to hold our views lightly and be more open to finding out about the people in front of us” (Perry, 2012).
If you’d like more details, please watch my 20-minute video presentation on the neuroscience of biases and how to change them: “Exploring and Overcoming Biases: A Guide for EFT Practitioners.”
Bobula, K. A. (2011). This is your brain on bias… or, the neuroscience of bias. Faculty Lecture Series, Clark College, Vancouver, WA, May 3, 2011. Retrieved from http://www.twotowns.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/This-is-your-brain-on-bias%E2%80%A6-or-the-neuroscience-of-bias.pdf
Brown, L. S. (n.d) What is cultural competence? Online article. Retrieved from http://www.drlaurabrown.com/cultural-competence/
Dovidio, J. F., & Gaertner, S. L. (2005). Color blind or just plain blind? The pernicious nature of
contemporary racism. Nonprofit Quarterly, 12(4), 40-46.
Perry, P. (2012). How to stay sane (The school of life). New York, NY: Macmillan/Picador.