Brain researcher takes on bias

A medical doctor with a background in neuroscience, Julia Sperling knows what unconscious bias looks like. It’s a flash on a functional MRI, or a delayed reaction time on a test, or poor performance on a simple quiz. And it’s hurting our ability to make good decisions.

Julia is the leader of our Middle East Healthcare Practice and a global leader in our Organization Practice. She’s also on the faculty of McKinsey Leadership Development, where she helps aspiring leaders see how their thinking is shaped by unconscious forces, and how they can overcome them.

Just how did a medical doctor end up in the board room? “When I finished my dissertation, a McKinsey partner asked me where I wanted to be in 10 years. Did I still want to work in a laboratory, which at the time was in the basement of the university hospital? Or did I want to broaden my horizons, travel the world, influence decision-makers, and while doing all of this, truly impact the way people think and act in their fields? So I made my choice.” Julia joined our Frankfurt office in 2004.

In business and public policy circles, interest in cognitive biases has been stoked by the work of prominent researchers such as Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, author of recent bestseller Thinking Fast and Slow, who demonstrated how biases lead to sub-optimal decisions that are far removed from the perfectly rational choices assumed by classical economics. Research has shown not only how unconscious bias can be measured—using what researchers call ‘implicit association testing,’ for example—but also how it can be countered to achieve better results. One topic that fascinates Julia and her team is how these ideas can be applied to influence large groups of people—even entire populations—to achieve better outcomes.

Measure your implicit gender bias with our implicit association test

In addition to her work on health systems, Julia’s work focuses on shifting mindsets and behaviors by highlighting beliefs and biases that constrain personal growth, learning, and job performance. These include misconceptions about how the brain works, often popularized by bad journalism and now disproved by neuroscience. You may have heard that you’re either right- or left-brained. Wrong. Or that you only use 10% of the capacity of your brain. Nope. In fact, the latest research suggests that the brain is infinitely more capable of learning in myriad ways, with positive reinforcement, focus, and a “growth mindset”—“the belief that we can handle whatever life puts in front of us,” Julia explains.

These discoveries in neuroscience have broad implications. Julia’s work is helping clients around the world uncover their own biases through capability building workshops and as part of our leadership development programs. Specifically, she works with companies in the Middle East to develop their female leaders and understand the issues faced by women in leadership roles across the region. “The view from the outside world that there are no female leaders in the Middle East is simply wrong," she says. “There are strong women taking leadership positions in government and private and social sectors. When I look at the courage, level of vision, and drive in many Saudi women, for example, I’m inspired.”

On a personal level, has her work on unconscious biases helped Julia chart a course in her professional life? “Some advice I’ve received in the course of my career could have sent me in the wrong direction. Having more insights makes it easier to stay on course. The biggest danger is when people think they are being impartial but in fact carry deep biases.”

Never miss a story

Stay updated about McKinsey news as it happens