Jessica Nordell Q&A

November 29, 2021
Jessica Nordell challenges us to question our own inherent beliefs.

“I’m an inveterate learner, and I’m driven by curiosity more than just about anything else. So it was a total thrill digging into the studies, talking to researchers, following my nose about which questions I wanted to answer. At times I’d run straight up against the boundaries of knowledge — asking questions that no one yet knows the answers to — which is exciting in its own way. But another big joy for me was the way it changed me, the writer.”

Your section on the research of Professor Devine was fascinating. You can feel her shock when her data showed that most people have implicit bias. How groundbreaking was it when she published her paper in 1989? 

Devine’s finding addressed what we might call the prejudice paradox — people would report unbiased attitudes and then still be observed behaving in biased ways. It’s possible they were lying, but her experiment showed that prejudice could be an unthinking habit, like biting your nails, and that this could have serious unintended consequences. It was groundbreaking at the time, because there hadn’t been a mechanism identified for this before. Of course that doesn’t describe all prejudice, some of which is very intentional and very overt. But the idea of unintended bias resonates for many of us who really hold egalitarian values and yet can be susceptible to treating people unfairly. And if we think of it as caused by inherited stereotypes from culture (often lies), we can work against it.

You did so many interviews and original research with your book, while also including some of your own story. It reminded me of reading Andrew Solomon. Was part of the joy for you in the research?

I absolutely loved doing the research. I’m an inveterate learner, and I’m driven by curiosity more than just about anything else. So it was a total thrill digging into the studies, talking to researchers, following my nose about which questions I wanted to answer. At times I’d run straight up against the boundaries of knowledge — asking questions that no one yet knows the answers to — which is exciting in its own way. But another big joy for me was the way it changed me, the writer. I think it’s Robert Frost who said, “No change for the writer, no change for the reader.” The process went way beyond the scientific and intellectual into heart and spirit. I’m a different person as a result of writing this book.

You gave a great definition of how prejudicial beliefs and associations play out in our consciousness — a belief is like subscribing to a newsletter, while an association is like spam. Yet spam still holds power. What can we do to stop giving power to the spam in our heads?

Ha! Great question. The first step is just noticing the Spam. Observing when stereotypes and associations are influencing our reactions to other people, and developing the mindful practice of pausing for a moment. Once you notice, and pause, that’s really the beginning of personal autonomy — you get to choose what to do next. Then you can practice things like seeing the situation from the other person’s perspective and more. There are many other approaches I outline, like checklists and developing meaningful relationships with others and policy changes, but noticing is a great first step. Try it — the next time you encounter a stranger, try just noticing all the assumptions you make. It can be quite alarming.

You gave that great tip in your book to employers to stop using identifiers in job applications. That alone seems like it could have big impacts. Are you sensing that employers are open to such a reform?

I think some are. It’s pretty fascinating — I actually suggested this at a former workplace of mine, and it definitely affected who made it to the hiring shortlist. The question is really whether employers are willing to take those results and act on them — actually go the next step and make sure an interview is also conducted in an unbiased way (for instance, making sure candidates all get the same questions). This is really a question of mindset — what leaders believe about the effects of homogeneity and why to pursue diversity. Homogeneity can really limit a group’s capacities (homogenous juries consider fewer facts when deciding a case, for instance). If leaders understand that, they’re more willing to take the steps they need to make meaningful changes.

You’ve said that one of the profound dynamics of the cultural discussion around George Floyd is white America learning what Black America has known all along. Do you think progress is being made? 

It’s complex. There are powerful signs for hope, and there are also forces moving in opposite directions. I wrote this book to give people the tools they need to help create a more just, fair, and life-affirming world for us all to live in. I choose hope.