The Bias-Habit-Breaking Intervention Works Better than Diversity Training

A Proven Technique For Reducing Dependence On Your Personal Biases

In 2020 the UK government announced that, unconscious bias and diversity training would be phased out in government departments. The reason- it didn’t work.

Specifically, there wasn’t evidence to support training changed behaviour or made a difference in terms of representation of women, ethnic minorities or other minority groups.

Many scholars aren’t surprised by this finding. How diversity and unconscious bias training is conducted is widely variable and very often no evaluation or return-on-training-investment occurs.

Whilst everyone agrees the evidence is lacking no one disagrees that the problem of bias and prejudice in the workplace remains an important one.

The UK government are now planning more robust learning experiences, support by evidence, to help its Civil Servants confront unconscious bias.

In this article I’d like to introduce you to an intervention that does work, according to science.  But first let’s review some common concerns and findings about the current state of diversity training.

When Diversity Training Goes Wrong

At best diversity training has little impact on helping the organisation fulfil its diversity goals.

But there is a dark side;

Despite these poor outcomes confronting bias in the workplace is not only important it’s critical we find practical solutions that make a difference.

Bias-Habit-Breaking Intervention is Backed by Evidence

More than 12 research studies conducted over the last 10 years have demonstrated that the Bias-Habit-Breaking Intervention is effective at empowering people to create lasting change in themselves. Specifically, participants,

  1. Get stronger in their belief that they are personally vulnerable to bias, even when its unintentional
  2. Get stronger in their belief that bias and discrimination has consequences for others and is a serious problem
  3. Are motivated to put effort into recognising bias and implementing effectives strategies to respond in a more appropriate way

These are not short-term gains either. Studies have shown improvements up to 2 years after intervention.

The Prejudice (Bias)-Habit-Breaking Intervention has been designed and heavily research over the last 30 years by Professor Patricia Devine and Dr. William Cox from the University of Wisconsin­–Madison.

Bias as a ‘Habit of Mind’

According to Devine and Cox, “This intervention conceptualises stereotypes and unintentional biases as ‘habits of mind’ and frames overcoming prejudice (or bias) as a process of breaking the bias habit through self-conscious regulations.”

I share with you a personal example of a sweet-tasting habit of mine. It’s one I’ve been working on recently. I hope it’s useful to help understand the key steps involved in breaking any type of habit.

I love a sweet treat with a brew around 9 pm. It’s my time. The kids are asleep, all my chores are complete and I’m relaxing with my dear friend, Netflix.  Here I’ve identified the trigger or cue which ignites my sweet habit.

Being a Dietitian in a past life, I’m aware these sweet treats are empty calories, that frankly at my age are not welcome. I’m also aware they are contributing to a recent finding that my cholesterol is higher than it should be.  I also know what action needs to be taken- either I choose something healthier or cut out the supper snack altogether. I decide I will throw out the sweet choices and replace them with healthier food options such as, nuts, fruits and healthy grain bars. Here I’ve committed to a new routine through awareness of the health consequences of my sweet tooth and what options are effective. Note I’ve made a new habit to help me break an old habit. Best not just try to give up a bad habit but replace it with a new one.

It was the cholesterol level that tipped me into action. The unwanted calories didn’t have the same sting as the potentially lethal consequences of blocked arteries. It’s now been 3 months and I’m about due for a repeat blood test. I’ve had the inevitable slip ups, but I expected these and didn’t allow them to get me off track. Here I share my intrinsic motivation to sustain my habit breaking efforts, despite the setbacks. My reward is the satisfaction that I’m taking positive steps towards my health giving me the best chance of being here for my family.

So, in summary to break a habit you need to be able to identify the trigger that initiates the habit, develop a new habit to replace the one you’re trying to cease and finally find a reward that will sustain your efforts despite the inevitable challenges.

Now let’s apply this habit-breaking-approach to help us alleviate our dependence on personal bias.

Five Components of The Bias-Habit-Breaking Intervention

1. Ethics That Oppose Bias

The Bias-Habit-Breaking Intervention doesn’t impact everyone equally. The greatest impact will be on those who hold personal principles or ethics that oppose bias. Think about the last habit you tried to break, you started with the desire to want to change something. For me it was the finding out I had elevated cholesterol. To break any habit, we must find the intrinsic motivation to want to try and change. This is also true of trying to break the habit of bias.

Not everyone opposes bias and not every employee will support organisational efforts to confront it. Some will choose to see it as a zero-sum game. Where they are unwilling to sacrifice (eg their status, economic security) for someone less fortunate.

Here’s the good news. To create change at an organisational level you don’t have to convince every employee, all you need is a critical mass to support your efforts to keep a lid on bias in the workplace.

2. Awareness of Personal Vulnerabilities to Act in A Bias Way Without Intending To Do So

Once you’re committed to change the next step in the Bias-Habit-Breaking Intervention is awareness that everyone is vulnerable to act in a bias way. Even if we’re opposed to bias. Exposure to bias and stereotypes starts at a very young age. Society, family, friends and the media all contribute to how we perceive we and others fit in our world.  Over time this becomes our default where our reactions to stereotyped groups is automatic and habitual. As a result, we don’t notice. For example side stepping a person of colour or making a sexist remark or joke.

The Bias-Habit-Breaking Intervention helps participants uncover their own personal vulnerabilities in a way that doesn’t elicit defensiveness. Instead, it creates a healthy tension driving us to want to change so we can fulfill our personal drive to oppose bias.

3.Bothered That Biased Behaviours Result In Serious Negative Consequences

In order to create an uncomfortableness about acting with bias, albeit unintentionally another critical ingredient to create change is the belief that this is an important issue worthy of corrective action.

The Bias-Habit-Breaking Intervention helps participants tune into and look out for common manifestations of bias and how acting on our biases has serious consequences for others less privileged.

4. Identifies Effective Strategies To Reduce Unintentional Biased Beliefs & Behaviours

Having instilled participants motivation for a change it’s critical to resource them with the tools that are effective in countering bias. Surprisingly we find what might first appear the most obvious strategies are in fact the least effective. Some strategies are best deployed reactively. Others are focused on how to prevent expressions of bias in the first place.

5. Motivation To Sustain Less Biased Behaviours

The final step in the Bias-Habit-Breaking intervention is to set expectations. It’s important to understand that change won’t happen overnight. It requires ongoing effort. Failures and slip-ups are normal. No one kicked a habit the first time they tried. But with persistence success will follow.


I am Yvonne Bowyer and I founded M.A.D About Bias to help workplaces and employees learn how to look for bias, catch it and shine a light on it. I teach the evidence-based, Bias-Habit-Breaking Intervention because it works. And I’m all about being M.A.D. making a difference.

If you’re interested in hearing more about this pioneering approach, please email me.

I’m available for speaking, training, and consultancy services to unleash the human capital in your organisation to help you prosper. We have programs directed at all employees, leaders and HR professionals.

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