More and more companies, government organizations, and NGOs are talking about the effects of implicit bias, how it creates toxic environments and poor corporate culture. So how do implicit bias factor into the voice booth, voice over performances, and script analysis? As an artist, I think it’s very important for us to understand that this is part of the dialogue. That’s happening not only in corporate America, entertainment, art, everything, but to see how this may be affecting our practice and performances.
We might not be able to identify all 150 cognitive biases but we can dig into our brains, challenge our own perceptions and recognize areas of our life and our art where we might, subconsciously, be affected. Every day the mapping of our brain compensates and changes, and the more we as artists learn about humanity, about people who are different from us, who have a different world view the better artists we become.
What is Implicit Bias?
Simply put, a bias is a belief we use to navigate the world. Everyone has bias, if you don’t, well that likely means either your brain isn’t functioning or you live on another planet. According to social psychologists (and all the learning I’ve been narrating centered on this) implicit bias is “an unconscious association, belief, or attitude toward any social group,” and while “explicit biases and prejudices are intentional and controllable, implicit biases are less so.” It isn’t always a bad thing, although it can be.
Our biases are based on our identity, our upbringing, the media we consume, and the people we associate with. Physicians use it to make quick assessments in emergency situations, they also use it to pre-judge to the detriment of patients. Our brains are hardwired to use pattern recognition as a sort of shortcut, and a survival skill.
It helps us navigate the world. Implicit bias is a judgment call we don’t even realize we are making, one that might even go against what we consider to be our core beliefs. It affects our lives and the lives of those around us, but more pertinent to voice acting and narration, it can also affect our performance choices. Here’s how:
1 Anchoring Bias – Pigeonholes a Voice Over Character
Anchoring bias is a type of implicit bias “that causes us to rely too heavily on the first piece of information we are given about a topic.” That first piece of information is the center of the universe by which all additional information revolves. For example, if the first piece of information we learn about a character is that she’s a mother, that’s going to become the anchor point against which all other information is weighed. We’ve all experienced being stuck on an idea, and as we read on and the picture of the character changes, anchoring bias skews our judgment, making it harder to reimagine the character. As everyone else reading the script is struggling with the same type of cognitive bias, we all deliver the same read.
Working past anchoring bias can be difficult, but the first step is to recognize what we’re doing. Question and interrogate ourselves. How would the read change if the character wasn’t a mother? Is her motherhood the most important thing about her, would I think the same way if she were a father? Work to look past your first idea.
Do a little bit of imaginative play and you come up with a 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th possibility. Which one resonates and would make the performance better. A lot of voice actors think they are delivering nuanced, different performances when they are really delivering the same primary performance with subtle changes.
Barney from How I Met Your Mother was originally scripted as a “big lug of a guy”, proving that when a better characterization comes along plans can change. While auditioning Neil Patrick Harris, dove, and somersaulted into the role of Barney. Playing the role to his strengths while playing laser tag, rather than a description on a piece of paper.
2 Expediency Bias Makes for Lazy Voice Over
Expediency bias pushes us to go for a quick decision to save mental energy. Time is money, and the easiest route is often the quickest. When you get an audition, you don’t have hours and hours and hours to prepare. Most often we have minutes. Sometimes a gut decision is fantastic when it’s a thoughtful decision rather than the easiest one.
How can you lessen expediency bias? First, slow down, which is not always possible in a higher-stress, time-sensitive situation like an audition. So, also, think and prepare. My advice is our performance craftwork. Prepare a bunch of different options for different situations and keep them easily within reach. Make expediency bias work for you by keeping accessible changes in your back pocket.
3 Conformity Bias and the Same Voice Over Performance, Over, and Over, and Over
Conformity bias “is the tendency people have to behave like those around them rather than using their own personal judgment.” It’s a form of social desirability, mimicking behavior. We look at what others are doing and copy them in the hopes of conforming to societal norms, instead of looking for the most original way of expressing ourselves as voice over artists. You can see how this form of cognitive bias might go hand in hand with expediency bias. Often the quickest route is to follow the herd.
Johnny Depp was supposed to play the typical swashbuckling pirate in Pirates of the Caribbean, but he went another way with his now-iconic character, Jack Sparrow. Reportedly making Disney Executives extremely worried. “They were nervous, they were afraid no one would understand a word Captain Jack said,” Depp explained. “I got calls from them asking, ‘Is he drunk? Are you drunk? What’s the thing with his hands?’”
Use Implicit Bias to Your Advantage
Hold true to your voice and ideas within reason of course. If you have taken the time to establish a character, an idea, and no one else is doing what you are doing, then that might be just the thing to separate your performance from everyone else’s.