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Implicit Bias: The science behind it and steps we can take to override it.

The Director of Professional Development and Member Engagement for Maryland REALTORS®.

On Saturday, November 13, 2021, I woke up to another beautiful day in sunny San Diego while attending NAR’s Annual Conference. Later that day I would head over to the NAR Professional Standards Forum and its subsequent meeting. I spent the morning reviewing the packed agenda for a third time and made my way to the meeting room. At the meeting’s start, Mark Mansour, former Chair of the NAR Professional Standards Committee, took to the stage. Pen in hand, I pulled out my notebook prepared to take notes and engage in what I knew would be a lively discussion.

And yet, what came next didn’t just surprise me, it inspired me. Before Mark started the meeting, he asked everyone on the Committee to stand up and read the Preamble to the NAR Code of Ethics out loud. You may have read it before. If you haven’t, we’ve included it in its entirety in the bottom of this post. I ask that you take a moment to read it aloud now.

Having read that, are you feeling inspired? I hope so. I certainly was that day. In that moment, I was reminded of the brilliance of the Preamble and the Articles and Standards of Practice that follow, its continued relevance, and its continued ability to inspire excellence. The simple act of reading the Preamble out loud established a distinct mindset that struck the right the tone for the discussion that followed. 

As we embark on this important conversation about implicit bias and the science that explains why we behave in the ways we do and how we can surmount the obstacles that can lead to unequal treatment of clients and customers, I encourage you to consider these lofty ideals and remember that the term REALTOR® is synonymous with competency, fairness, and integrity. 

As you know, Article 1 of the NAR Code of Ethics obligates REALTORS® to protect and promote the client’s interest and to treat all parties honestly. Being aware that our decisions might be affected by biases in the brain that are inconsistent with our values and adopting the protocols outlined below will guide daily interactions with clients.

Equally important is Article 10, which states that REALTORS® shall not deny equal professional services to any person for reasons of race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Additionally, REALTORS® shall not be party to any plan or agreement to discriminate against the person or persons on the basis of race, religion, sex, disability, familial status, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender identity. 

Implicit bias exists towards all our identities, from gender to religion to race—categories covered by the Fair Housing Act. Understanding the science behind it helps us to be mindful that how we think we are behaving might not be consistent with how we actually behave. With this awareness, our intentions and our actions stay aligned with the ideals and requirements noted above. Our awareness, our ability to thoughtfully consider our actions, and our willingness to adopt new behaviors or protocols can overcome many of the obstacles that lead to fair housing violations. 

While the Preamble and Code of Ethics provide a framework for understanding why this discussion matters, the science behind how the brain works is the lens through which we can better understand implicit bias

What Is Implicit Bias? 

Bias is defined as a particular tendency, trend, inclination, feeling, or opinion. In the context of human relationships, it means having a preference for or against a group of people. 

Rachel Godsil, law professor at Rutgers University and co-founder and co-director of the Perception Institute, explains that implicit bias is our brain’s automatic instant association of stereotypes or attitudes with particular groups often without our conscious awareness. Author and Harvard Psychologist Charlotte Rule notes that the term “implicit bias” was first coined in 1995 by psychologists Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald. They argued that social behavior is largely influenced by unconscious associations and judgments. 

The term “implicit bias” is preferred over “unconscious bias” because even when you are conscious of biases, they still emerge automatically in the brain. This is why these biases are so powerful. 

Godsil asserts that having implicit biases does not mean we have to act on them. She explains that everyone has some biases towards a variety of groups and that implicit biases can exist towards all the different identities we have, including gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, age, ability status, and religion. Acknowledging our implicit biases is the first step in modifying our thoughts, our behaviors, and our business practices to be consistent with Fair Housing laws and with the aspirational goals of NAR’s Code of Ethics. 

Afua Addo, Deputy Director of Programs and Training for the Perception Institute, states that these biases often arise because of trying to find patterns to help us navigate the overwhelming stimuli in the world around us. Culture, media, and lived experiences can also contribute to the development of these biases. She notes that implicit bias is heightened by stress, time pressure, multi-tasking, lack of clear criteria for decision making, ambiguous or incomplete information, and lack of familiarity with a particular group.

Why Should We Be Concerned About These Biases?  

Addo explains that the split-second decisions we make daily could be guided by the associations we have in our brain that are inconsistent with our values. Godsil adds that most of our actions occur without conscious thought. In other words, our implicit biases often predict how we’ll behave more accurately than our conscious values do. 

Addo states that implicit bias can determine how we see people and that we assess them by the degree to which they match what society tells us. Addo notes that implicit bias can cause us to misread facial cues. It affects body language and has also been observed in eye contact, spatial response, and tone. 

In the housing context, implicit bias can lead to steering, as we’ve witnessed in the “Long Island Divided” exposé published in Newday. It can also show up in perceptions of neighborhoods, housing stock, and property value, leading to appraisal bias.

Is There a Solution? 

The good news is that these preferences are not fixed. Godsil explains that we are capable of delinking stereotypes from identities so that we can see a person for the identity group that may be important to them and for the unique human being they are. 

Implementing the following protocols can help override bias and begin to align behavior with conscious values instead of being guided by rejected stereotypes. Use of these protocols can facilitate accurate evaluations of clients and customers and reduce or eliminate incorrect assumptions that could undermine access to homeownership or wealth-generating opportunities. 

Protocol 1 – Individuating involves asking meaningful and intentional questions and not assuming you know what your client is seeking. 
Protocol 2 – Counter Stereotyping is surrounding yourself with stories or images that are counter to the negative stereotypes about particular groups, so associations begin to change and broaden. 
Protocol 3 – Perspective-Taking allows you to consider what a day in the life of someone from another identity group might be like. Use of empathy is a key component of this approach. 
Protocol 4 – Peer-to-Peer Intergroup Connection involves developing and sustaining relationships and friendships with people from different identity groups. It is one of the most powerful ways to reduce bias. 

Following these protocols can even have a positive impact on the bottom line. When behavior is aligned with conscious values instead of being guided by negative stereotypes, the result is more productive relationships. This, in turn, may result in repeat and referral business. 

Having an awareness of how the mind works and utilizing the protocols outlined here to override bias gets us closer to living the ideals embodied in the Preamble and the Code of Ethics. If you haven’t already, take an hour out of your day and watch NAR’s Bias Override video.


Preamble to the NAR Code of Ethics

Under all is the land. Upon its wise utilization and widely allocated ownership depend the survival and growth of free institutions and of our civilization. REALTORS® should recognize that the interests of the nation and its citizens require the highest and best use of the land and the widest distribution of land ownership. They require the creation of adequate housing, the building of functioning cities, the development of productive industries and farms, and the preservation of a healthful environment. 

Such interests impose obligations beyond those of ordinary commerce. They impose grave social responsibility and a patriotic duty to which REALTORS® should dedicate themselves, and for which they should be diligent in preparing themselves. REALTORS®, therefore, are zealous to maintain and improve the standards of their calling and share with their fellow REALTORS® a common responsibility for its integrity and honor. 

In recognition and appreciation of their obligations to clients, customers, the public, and each other, REALTORS® continuously strive to become and remain informed on issues affecting real estate and, as knowledgeable professionals, they willingly share the fruit of their experience and study with others. They identify and take steps, through enforcement of this Code of Ethics and by assisting appropriate regulatory bodies, to eliminate practices which may damage the public or which might discredit or bring dishonor to the real estate profession.

REALTORS® having direct personal knowledge of conduct that may violate the Code of Ethics involving misappropriation of client or customer funds or property, discrimination against the protected classes under the Code of Ethics, or fraud, bring such matters to the attention of the appropriate Board or Association of REALTORS®. (Amended 1/21) 
Realizing that cooperation with other real estate professionals promotes the best interests of those who utilize their services, REALTORS® urge exclusive representation of clients; do not attempt to gain any unfair advantage over their competitors; and they refrain from making unsolicited comments about other practitioners. In instances where their opinion is sought, or where REALTORS® believe that comment is necessary, their opinion is offered in an objective, professional manner, uninfluenced by any personal motivation or potential advantage or gain. 

The term REALTOR® has come to connote competency, fairness, and high integrity resulting from adherence to a lofty ideal of moral conduct in business relations. No inducement of profit and no instruction from clients ever can justify departure from this ideal.

In the interpretation of this obligation, REALTORS® can take no safer guide than that which has been handed down through the centuries, embodied in the Golden Rule, “Whatsoever ye would that others should do to you, do ye even so to them.” 

Accepting this standard as their own, REALTORS® pledge to observe its spirit in all of their activities whether conducted personally, through associates or others, or via technological means, and to conduct their business in accordance with the tenets set forth below. (Amended 1/07).”

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