We all have biases and prejudices that affect our lives in many ways, from the choices we make to our interactions with others. And of course our biases and prejudices can affect our research work too. We can never completely escape from our biases and prejudices, but there are a number of steps we can take to mitigate their impact. Here are ten of the most useful.
1. Get as much good quality information as you can.
The less information you have, the more space there is for biases and prejudices to operate. Ideally, seek information from reputable sources that is backed up by other reputable sources. Of course in some research areas, at the frontiers of knowledge, there is little to be found – but there will be foundational information to build pioneering research on, and again this needs to be demonstrably solid and trustworthy.
2. Use structures to help you think.
Structures, such as checklists, can bring rigour to your thinking. They should be predetermined and tested. One structure I use frequently is the eight criteria identified by Sarah Tracy for assessing the quality of qualitative research. These criteria were themselves developed from a systematic analysis of debates on quality in the qualitative research literature – exactly the kind of demonstrably solid foundational information I referred to in Tip 1 above.
3. Take steps to mitigate the effects of your emotions.
Our emotions are always with us and they inevitably affect our work. We need to be aware of our feelings so we can take the necessary steps to ensure they are not unduly influencing our decisions. Where emotional influence is unavoidable, we should be open about this in our reporting.
4. Seek the opinions of others.
Other people are often better at spotting our biases and prejudices than we are ourselves. It can be useful to talk through your work with someone you trust to give you an honest opinion. Ask for their views about where your biases and prejudices lie, and how they might be affecting your research.
5. Value scepticism.
Remember, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is. Of course it is possible to overdo scepticism: doubting the accuracy of every single thing is annoying for others and bad for your own mental health. But scepticism in the form of truly critical thinking can be a useful counterbalance to bias and prejudice.
6. Flip the viewpoint.
This involves conducting thought experiments and is particularly useful for debiasing during analytic work. If you think your data is pointing towards a conclusion that group X needs intervention Y, try imagining the opposite. What if group X didn’t need intervention Y? Or what if group X needed intervention M rather than intervention Y? This may sound fanciful, even pointless, yet I recommend that you give it a try. It can be a really useful way to shed light on your findings.
7. Consider accountability.
Who are you accountable to? What would they think of your work? It won’t just be one group of people, so think this through for each group: participants, participants’ families, participants’ community members, colleagues, superiors, maybe funders, your family, your friends… Try to see your work as each group would see it, and consider what that tells you.
8. Use mindfulness.
Bias and prejudice can creep in when you think and work fast. There are incentives in most people’s working lives to think and work fast, but deliberately slowing our thinking can be a very useful guard against bias and prejudice.
9. Practice reflexivity.
Reflexivity involves carefully and critically examining the influences on our work, such as our characters, institutions, identities and experiences. There is no set way to do this, except that it should not become an end in itself; it should serve our research work, or it risks becoming self-indulgent. Working reflexively involves asking ourselves questions such as: Why am I doing this research? What and whose purposes does it serve? Why do some aspects of my research work please or trouble me? And so on.
10. Read work by people who are not like you.
I cannot stress this enough. Learn about others’ views. Read work by people of different genders, ages, ethnicities, cultures, religions/beliefs, political persuasions. Find out how the world looks to them. And this loops us right back to Tip 1 above, because gathering more information about people who are not like us helps to dispel any biases and prejudices we hold about them.
Do you have any other tips for debiasing work? If so, please pop them in the comments.
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We have a natural tendency to cherry-pick data, to seek confirmation of our biases. I ask myself the following 4 questions when it comes to bias in my research:
1. What if my favourite theory/framework/method vanished? What else could I use?
Rather than discarding theories/methods/frameworks from the outset, frame your questions differently to include as many theories/methods/frameworks as possible ie can I apply this AND that to this problem and what does it give me if I do? You’ll be surprised at the new and often different insights doing this can give you. And could prove invaluable should your favourite cartheory/method/framework become unviable and “disappear”.
2. Imagine that the theory/method/framework I am currently considering turns out to be a terrible choice. Where could I find proof of that right now?
Actively seek out data that goes AGAINST your current beliefs when it comes to theories/methods/frameworks. Read widely and extensively; see what you can learn from opposing points of view. Ask other students, academics what they are currently reading, and follow suggestions that contradict your current position. Follow a varied complement of academics and others on twitter and ask them questions on what you have read.
3. What advice would I give a student about to embark on a similar research problem as mine? Which theory/method/framework would I suggest they try?
Doing this allows you to make a simple shift in perspective, detach from any emotional attachment you might be feeling to any one theory/method/framework that might be due more to your supervisor’s preferences than your own and allows you to see the bigger picture.
4. Three months from now what evidence would make me reconsider, even abandon my current favourite theory/method/framework?
We think the choices we make in say our proposal are permanent without realizing that virtually every choice made is provisional, open to change. Even in the 11th hour of writing the concluding chapter to your thesis you can come across some book, paper that dramatically alters how you read what you have already written, provoking you to rewrite your thesis in part (as did I) or entirely (as did someone else I know!). All is provisional.
In summary, try for a wide beam focus rather than a spotlight on anything you are basing a decision on and give yourself the freedom to admit you are wrong to yourself and others for it is only by doing so that you grow in your thinking, and your spotlight widens.
Great approach, Carmen! That will also help you avoid the trap of fetishising a theory or a method, as many researchers tend to do. Thanks for taking the time to share.
I put “Seek the opinions of others” at the top of the list. I have just been on the phone with a friend asking about a project someone keeps pestering them about. To me the project sounds nuts. At best the instigator is well intentioned but inexperienced, at worst it is a scam. So I suggested checking with others. Instead they wanted to get the same person to send more details of the project. This is a case where more information would not be of use, as that information cannot be trusted.
Perhaps it is just my level of skepticism is very high. Yesterday someone was going on about how wonderful the Metaverse is going to be. So I replied: https://blog.highereducationwhisperer.com/2023/01/metaverse-will-fail.html
Thanks, Tom – great comment, interesting post, and I completely agree about the Metaverse!