Instructor Bias at Military Training Institutions

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When it comes to meritocracy and diversity, the symbolic is real. And that means that simple actions that reduce bias, such as blind resume or application screening, are a double win: they reduce implicit bias and they help communicate our commitment to meritocracy. Eric Ries – Silicon Valley Entrepreneur

The impact of instructor bias is a common topic for trainees on military courses. Where experiences of instructors of various rank and corps differ, such as field leadership and Tactical Exercises Without Troops (TEWTS), the potential exists for trainees to form individual or group perceptions that some markers are harder than others or that some fail whilst others pass for similar work. If the moral role of military training institutions (MTI) are to promote integrity, by inspiring high ideals and the pursuit of excellence, it is in the interest of all instructors to ensure biases are mitigated to best achieve impartial assessments and fair treatment of trainees.

This article explores the subconscious bias of instructors at MTI and the effect on decision-making and the outcomes for trainees. Through the application of psychology theories, this article will explain cognitive biases, why they form, how bias is perceived by trainees and the value of preventing bias of MTI instructors. 

Instructor Intuition and Bias

Instructors, like any person, are subject to bias and are required to complement curricula with their intuition. Intuition is born from experience. Burke and Sadler-Smith (2006) describe intuition in an educational context as ‘a process in which instructors efficiently code, sort and access experientially conceived mental models for use in making instructional decisions’ and where instructors ‘have cognitive schemas or mental models born of experience that they can overlay on particular instructional problems to detect a timely solution.’  The limits of intuition lead to the development and appearance of biases. This article refers to cognitive bias as an inclination or prejudice, for or against, an individual or group. As outlined by Skinner (2017), every:

‘decision that involves any element of human judgement, cognitive bias is introduced. While cognitive bias itself is not bad or evil, a failure to acknowledge and account for cognitive bias is a failure to acknowledge the limits of human intuition. Cognitive bias is what makes us human.’

Cognitive Bias

It is important to understand the types of cognitive bias. The bias blind spot recognises the impact of bias on the judgement of others, while failing to see the impact of one’s own bias. By definition, instructors who have a bias blind spot are not aware of unconscious processes and cannot see the influence this has on their decision-making process. Page (2009) says that self-enhancement bias applies when analysing one’s own decision as they are likely to think of themselves as better decision makers than others. It is therefore helpful to educate instructors that they are not immune to unconscious bias. This will help them better understand their decisions which affect trainees both ‘in the moment’ and during reflection.

Instructors are required to make choices that can affect learning outcomes. Choice-supportive bias is where one tends to ascribe positive attributes retrospectively to a choice made. Mather and Johnson (2000) explain not only are memories of choices distorted, but positive aspects of the choice are ascribed, even if not part of the original decision-making process, and negative aspects are remembered as ascribed to rejected choices. Despite whether or not a decision made has a positive or negative effect on a trainee, choice-supportive bias may distort the instructor’s memory and contribute to confirmation of existing beliefs.

Confirmatory bias is the tendency to find, interpret, favour and remember information so that it confirms one’s pre-existing beliefs. Were a trainee to make a bad first impression, confirmatory bias could lead to the instructor gathering information on that trainee selectively and interpreting it in a negative way. Confirmatory bias is a selective collection of evidence that supports a person’s existing beliefs while at the same time ignoring or rejecting evidence that supports a different conclusion. This is also more broadly regarded as a tendency to search for, interpret and recall evidence that preserves one’s existing beliefs (Halpern, Roedinger III and Sternberg, 2007). For trainees who have made either a positive or negative first impression with instructors, if that impression were to continue despite further improved or diminished performance, this could create a perception of bias amongst trainees and may act as a source of conflict.

If conflict were to occur amongst the trainee body, instructors intending to resolve the conflict may be subject to the identifiable victim effect. Instructors may identify one trainee involved in a conflict as a ‘victim’ rather than as a participant and offer greater aid to that trainee rather than to the group that has the same need. Instructors may also administer greater punishment to an identified ‘perpetrator’ than to the group as a whole. Lowenstein, Small and Strnad (2005) explain that sympathy is created by information about the identified ‘victim’ such as age and gender, and there is a preference to punish identified ‘transgressors’ rather than unidentified transgressors. A perception of bias may be created when there is the protection of one trainee and the punishment of another, in what those involved believe to be a conflict where each share responsibility. It is important to understand that these have psychological underpinnings.

Where do biases come from?

In psychology, simple and efficient rules or mental shortcuts are used to form judgements and make decisions and these are known as heuristics. Heuristics can be useful for instructors, and work well in most circumstances, but can result in errors. Nevid, (2008) states that systematic deviations from logic, probability or rational choice theory can result in errors of many different types. Nevid explains that heuristics govern automatic and intuitive judgements and have use as deliberate mental strategies when operating with limited information. Heuristics allow instructors to react quickly where necessary but can also allow for the development of biases.

A psychological process thought to underlie a number of biases is attribute substitution. Attribute substitution explains why instructors can be unaware of their own biases, and why biases persist even if made aware of them. Newell, Lagnado and Shanks (2007) explain that when a person makes a computationally complex judgment, what occurs instead is that person substitutes a heuristic attribute, which uses the intuitive judgment system rather than the self-aware reflective system. If a person substitutes intuition for reflection, even unconsciously, this can create perceptions by others who disagree the decision was flawed. 

Social psychology and the philosophy of perception can offer insight into perceptions of bias. Naïve realism can explain why instructors and trainees view their environment objectively and therefore if there is a disagreement in the outcome of a decision this can lead to a perception of bias. Psychologists Ross and Ward (1996) posited three interrelated assumptions or “tenets”; one believes that they see the world objectively and without bias; one expects others will come to the same conclusion if they are exposed to the same information and interpret it rationally and that; one assumes others who do not hold the same views must be irrational, ignorant or biased. Naïve realism and the perception it creates can lead a trainee to view an instructor as biased or an instructor to view a trainee as ignorant and irrational, affecting the outcome for that trainee.

The Value of Debiasing

Bias training can result in debiasing at a general level in the long term. Morewedge and colleagues (2015) found training that provided personalised feedback and mitigating strategies reduced biases. The use of a moderator to mitigate actual or the perception of bias is a method employed at MTI and the occurrences of inconsistent outcomes of assessment are reduced by a moderator’s review. The provision of debiasing training of instructors or self-led professional development are just two methods to further reduce and mitigate bias.

Morewedge and colleagues (2015) state that with a decision maker, debiasing can occur from within, if one learns and adopts better strategies by which to make judgments and decisions. At MTI, decisions are made by instructors that impacts learning outcomes, performance, discipline, psychological well-being, and careers of trainees. The reduction of bias, particularly with respect to judgement and decision-making during assessments must be of paramount importance given the gravity of the outcome.

Jarrad Dekuyer is an infantry officer. He served the Western Australian community in law enforcement before enlisting in the Australian Army in his thirties.

Burke, L. and Sadler-Smith, E. (2006). Instructor Intuition in the Educational Setting. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 5(2), p.172.
Halpern, D., Roedinger lll, H. and Sternberg, R. (2007). Critical thinking in psychology / edited. 1st ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp.110-130.
Loewenstein, George and Small, Deborah and Strnad, Jeff, Statistical, Identifiable and Iconic Victims and Perpetrators (March 2005). Stanford Law and Economics Olin Working Paper No. 301. 
Mather, M. and Johnson, M. (2000). Choice-supportive source monitoring: Do our decisions seem better to us as we age? Psychology and Aging, 15(4), pp.596-606.
Morewedge, C., Yoon, H., Scopelliti, I., Symborski, C., Korris, J. and Kassam, K. (2015). Debiasing Decisions. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2(1), pp.129-140.
Newell, B., Lagnado, D. and Shanks, D. (2007). Straight choices. 1st ed. Hove: Psychology Press, Taylor & Francis Group.
Oxford Dictionaries | English. (2017). bias – definition of bias in English | Oxford Dictionaries. 
Ross, L., & Ward, A. (1996). Naive realism in everyday life: Implications for social conflict and misunderstanding. In T. Brown, E. S. Reed & E. Turiel (Eds.), Values and Knowledge (pp. 103–135). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Skinner, I. (2017). What is cognitive bias? How does it influence clinical practice? Body in Mind. 

3 thoughts on “Instructor Bias at Military Training Institutions

  1. In my experience as a Recruit Instructor, I look back on several situations where I was influenced by confirmatory bias. Upon reflection, I can see how it would have had a negative impact on some recruits’ training experience and their perception of Army JNCOs. It was only in towards the end of my first year that I became aware of it. It was pointed out to me by my PLCOMD at the time. I am very grateful that he did.

    I hope that other instructors out there read this and are able honestly self evaluate themselves to prevent bias detracting from the ability to lead and mentor. I think it also takes a strong leader to point this out to other instructors or be an effective moderator.

    Lead instructors and moderators should be carefully chosen by Senior Instructors to reduce bias in our training institutions (you will never eliminate bias).

  2. Fantastic article. I have noticed this phenomenon in Australian officer training over 2 1/2 decades and have attempted to reduce its influence upon my own decision making. It is real. Thanks for opening the discussion. But will be discussion be palatablewithin Army? Will officers be posted according to their EQ rather than career imperitives eg. Because RMC is a high profile posting useful to advance a favoured performer? And what incentives are there for an officer to behave or self-regulate to reduce or elimate bias? Will even the barest training on this topic be delivered, a lexicon be developed amongst instructors or a discussion encouraged? As always, I’m hoping for the best!

  3. As a current cadet at RMC-D I find this article very informative and confirms some of the suspicions I have had over the last several months of my training.

    Certainly there are instructors who are using training postings as a career step up, likewise there are instructors genuinely invested in the skills and knowledge required by cadets to become the best officers they can be.

    I have found that more so with SNCOs, they are more likely to help a student, as some day in the near future that cadet may be their boss. Whereas other officers are less inclined to help, perhaps because they want to continue the brand of training they received at Duntroon.

    Unconscious biased is something I can attribute to myself and I have identified it in others too. It is a core human reaction based off our primal instincts to judge friend or foe, help and danger.

    The way RMC-D allows 360° reporting; as used in the wider ADF, has definitely brought about some great changes to the way content is delivered and instructor/ student relations improved.

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