Defeating Bias in the Classroom: Lessons Learned from the Army


We all fight biases.  Some are learned through interactions with peers and family; others are more intuitive and somewhat unknowingly cloud our judgement.  At a minimum, biases have the ability to negatively affect our perception of others’ disposition and lead to false beliefs and judgement.  Biases also shape the classroom.  Expectations of teachers and students have the ability to create tensions in the classroom and negatively shape relationships that can impact the learning environment.  But can we be taught to recognize biases so they can be avoided?  Would it be fruitful to educate students and teachers of the most common biases to help alleviate them from the classroom environment?  Could there be a negative correlation between the awareness of biases and their prevalence in the classroom?  

Gehlbach, Young, and Roan considered this topic in their 2012 paper, Teaching Social Perspective Taking: How Educators might Learn from the Army.  The research team conducted experiments with U. S. Army personnel in an attempt to improve their “social perspective taking” in three ways:  “through more accurately detecting biases in others, by generating more initial hypotheses to explain others’ behaviors, and by adapting their hypotheses in the face of new evidence.”  In times of peace or conflict, soldiers need to be skilled in social perspective taking; being able to anticipate others’ reactions, gauge honesty, and possibly infer motivations of friend or foe.  Properly applying these skills could mean the difference between life and peaceful resolution or death and war.  

In particular, Gehlbach, Young, and Roan focused on four biases likely to perpetrate the incorrect perception of others:


  • fundamental attribution error – a bias in which a person underestimates the power of the situation and overestimate the disposition, or personality, on a person’s actions.  For example, when teachers believe the student sleeping through class to be lazy (disposition), when the student actually has to work late to support the family and gets very little sleep as a result (situation).  
  • naive realism – a bias in which a person believes their perspective of the world to be real and expects other rational people to see the world similarly.  For example, when a student believes their project to be the best of the class and expects to win first prize.  The student may exude a sense of dismay when they do not win, believing any sensible person able to see their project was the best.  
  • intergroup bias – a bias in which a person prefers members of their own in-group while often displaying prejudice and/or discrimination against out-group members.  For example, if a teacher consistently calls on students that are members of their club they sponsor while ignoring other students.
  • confirmation bias – a bias in which a person searches for information that supports their beliefs while ignoring other potentially relevant information that contradicts those beliefs.  For example, leaders in schools may hold tight to their beliefs of learning styles, ignoring the mounting evidence to the contrary.


“We are biased towards enhancing our sense of self by thinking that we see the world more accurately than others, the groups we belong to are more desirable than groups we are not a part of, and our pet theories about our social world tend to be correct.”

Past research has attempted to improve social perspective taking in specific laboratory contexts, but because these were laboratory manipulations there is question of the longevity and real-world application of the results.  The researchers are unaware of any other research performed on “typical perceivers” to improve social perspective taking aptitude in a more broad, fundamental context.  According to Gehlbach, Young, and Roan, the question still remains:  can social perspective taking be learned or improved through instruction, or is it something you must acquire “on the job” and through experience?

There were 116 participants in their experiment from three different U. S. Army installations.  On average, the participants had served over 11 years in the Army and close to 2.5 years on deployments.  The participants also ranged in education from high school graduate to Ph. D. and had an average of 3 years of college.  There were 53 commissioned officers , 53 non-commissioned officers, and 10 civilians who were to be inserted within Army units for deployment.  

The main hypotheses for the treatment group of the study are as follows:

  1. Be more accurate in detecting biases in others,
  2. Generate more initial hypotheses to explain why others were behaving as they were,
  3. Be more likely to change these hypotheses in the face of new evidence, and
  4. Be more accurate in  reading others in a video-based task.

The course administered to the treatment group lasted approximately six hours and was divided over two days. Gehlbach, Young, and Roan used a three-step approach for detecting the attempted improvement of social perspective taking:

  1. An assessment step where participants were trained to detect biases in themselves, in people they were interacting with, and in their perceptions of a situation.
  2. In the second step, participants created many hypotheses as to why the person or target thought or behaved in a certain way.  
  3. Finally, participants revisited their initial assessments to collect information that would help them test their many hypotheses.  

The results of the study were very promising from the standpoint of the teachability and improvability of social perspective taking.  Exposure to the six hour course improved participants’ detection of the four biases (fundamental attribution error, naive realism, intergroup bias, and confirmation bias) tested.  Results showed an increase in accuracy in the areas of generating initial hypotheses of targets and in adapting those hypotheses when new information about the target or situation was presented.  A final assessment of “in-the-moment” perspective taking rather than reflective perspective taking; however, saw no effects from the curriculum.   The researchers provided explanations for this last result:  perhaps the guiding heuristics were ineffective or forgotten or there was insufficient time for participants to practice with the heuristics.

“In sum, our findings indicate social perspective taking is not something that can only be learned on the job.  At the same time, our data suggest that different types of experiences in different contexts may facilitate (or inhibit) the development of this capacity.  Thus, social perspective taking may be something that can also be learned on the job to some degree.”

With the results of the research indicating that social perspective taking can be learned or enhanced, where could or should this be taught?  As Gehlbach, Young, and Roan indicated, an obvious setting would be a place of more “traditional learning”, or school.  From a practicality standpoint, teachers see their students five days a week in K-12 education; thus giving the influential teacher time to cultivate a relationship and enhance a program of social perspective taking.  Also, professional development for teachers could be easily adaptable, increasing educators’ ability to recognize bias in their students, but also recognizing their own biases in the classroom.  Relieving a classroom of major biases would only create a healthier classroom environment with less judgement and more empathy for the student and the teacher.  Also, this learning or enhancement of social perspective taking is cyclical.  A teacher realizing their tendency to use intergroup bias may purposely engage with students who are usually unconsciously ignored in class.  In turn, the student develops a sense of belongingness to the class and teacher, which develops into more empathy and support from the student to the teacher.   This positive growth of relationship might then spread, eventually, throughout the class; the results producing an intellectually and emotionally safe environment for the expression of opinions and ideas.

Gehlbach, Young, and Roan concluded that much work needs to be done in this area to enhance understanding and efficacy of applied social perspective taking.  But with the current research indicating that it can be taught and improved, why would we not want to investigate further and enhance relationships while decreasing judgement in our classrooms with the next generation?  More empathetic students today means less judgemental parents, children, workers, bosses, and leaders tomorrow.  In today’s global environment, can humanity afford not to invest in this social development?  I think not.  


Gehlbach, Hunter, Lissa V. Young, and Linda K. Roan. 2012. “Teaching social perspective taking: how educators might learn from the Army.” Educational Psychology 32 (3) (May): 295-309. doi:10.1080/01443410.2011.652807.


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