Seeing a clearer picture

Editor's note: Isabel Aneyba is the founder of COMARKA Research. She can be reached at

As a researcher and research company founder, I love when researchers and marketers can see Latino, Black and other cultural groups for who they are and I take very seriously the work of guiding clients to find impactful market, product and brand opportunities. One factor I have seen stand in the way of that is self-bias.

In this article I would like share the impact of self-bias in qualitative research by addressing and defining what self-bias is, why it is important as a qualitative researcher to remove it and how to remove it.

Self-bias is a particular tendency or inclination that prevents an objective perception of people, a situation or question. Most self-bias is unconscious. We all have our own unconscious version of it that comes from social stereotypes, attitudes and opinions we form about certain groups outside of our conscious awareness and we use social stereotypes of people of other cultures to navigate this complex world.

In each country or environment, there is a dominant group and culture that creates the acceptable norms and those who do not belong to this group are usually seen as different. The dominant group in the U.S. is white. People of color could be seen as different by people who do not know them.

There are three types of self-bias during research: self-bias between researcher and participants; self-bias between the participants and the client-side researchers and marketers; and self-bias between the participants. In this article, we will focus on removing self-bias between the researcher and the participants.

Unreliable insights 

Why is it important to remove self-bias as a researcher when we interview people of color? Two reasons: self-bias causes pain to people of color who are interviewed and it also leads to unreliable insights and incorrect decisions for end clients.

Examples of participants’ pain

  • A Black female participant opens up in the research and feels judged by the researcher who did not understand what she really meant and made a hurtful comment. 
  • An Hispanic participant shuts down when a non-Hispanic researcher asks him to respond in a direct and succinct way that is comfortable for the researcher but not for the participant. This low-income and less-educated participant prefers to provide a more elaborate response instead of being cut off prematurely by the researcher.

Examples of clients’ pain

  • End-client researchers and marketers receive an incorrect insight from the researcher. The company creates an ad that does not connect with people of color, wastes resources and potentially damages brand awareness and preferences. For example, I recall an ad targeting U.S. Hispanics that showed a grandmother who was hoarding cereal from her family, offending Latinos, who view grandmothers as nurturing rather than selfish.

Respect and appreciation

How can we remove self-bias? My top three ways involve creating respect and appreciation for people of color:

  • Understand the history and culture of people of color to respect them and see them for who they are. 
  • Use an inclusive researcher who employs in-culture research practices when interviewing people of color.
  • Generate insights that connect with people of color through their values. 

Understand the history and culture of people of color. 

The Hispanic and Black communities in the U.S. crave and deserve respect and appreciation. It is key to treat them with dignity and understanding during the research.

Black people have a history of segregation in the U.S. As slaves they were afraid of risking their lives if they said or did something that was considered wrong. After they were free, they were not given the same work opportunities as other people. During slavery, they developed their own sense of community (culture) and their own language to survive. This history has affected the wellbeing and prosperity of the Black community. Black people are very aware of their history and are very sensitive to micro-aggressions.

Most Mexicans Americans had a history of poverty in Mexico. Mexicans are the largest group of Latinos in the U.S., making up 60% of the Hispanic population. They moved from Mexico to the U.S. to survive and provide for their families. They are family-oriented, hard-working, resilient and humble. In the U.S., they take jobs that many people do not want to take in agriculture, hospitality, construction, janitorial, landscaping and gardening. 

The 2004 comedy “A Day Without a Mexican” addresses the hypothetical situation of what would happen if all Mexicans disappeared for one day in California. While the film was a satire, its points were very accurate, showing the many negative consequences for the economy of a world without Mexicans: a mother can’t go to work because her Mexican nanny doesn’t show up; diners can’t eat at restaurants because Mexicans cooks aren’t there; construction of homes and buildings stops because there are no Mexican workers, etc.

Use an inclusive researcher who employs in-culture research practices when interviewing people of color.

Inclusive researchers who understand other cultures know how to lead a rich conversation through respect and appreciation, which questions to ask (and not to ask) and know how to interpret the feedback in a way that is culturally relevant. 

Inclusive researchers emulate the preferred way of communication of people of color. For example, when interviewing Mexican Americans in focus groups, a good practice is to give them more time to answer the questions. Many Mexican Americans are storytellers and we should not always expect that they will answer succinctly. 

A sign of respect is using simple language to communicate and not interrupting them with serial probes, which will send the message that their answers are not good enough. A researcher who expects short answers and cuts off Mexican Americans will cause them to shut down or code-switch. 

Code-switching happens when people of color act and speak differently to be accepted by whites and make white people feel comfortable. While moderating Hispanic focus groups, I saw bilingual participants code-switch when a non-Hispanic researcher joined me at the end of the group to ask questions. They changed their friendly style to more direct English to mirror the non-Hispanic researcher.

The need for frequent code-switching has a negative effect on the well-being of people of color because it makes them think it’s not safe for them to be themselves, which of course is the exact opposite of the atmosphere you want in your qualitative research.

If you want to know if participants are code-switching, here is a test. When a moderator leaves the focus group room, people of color should act the same way as if the moderator were still in the room. If they change their tone of voice or act differently, they were code-switching and the moderator needed to do more to allow them to be themselves.

Generate insights that connect with people of color through their values. 

Inclusive researchers understand the values of people of color and strive to find real insights to create products and brands that connect with them. Below are some examples:

Black culture values respect. P&G showed respect to the Black community through advertising with a Tide ad where a Black dad is helping his baby to sleep. Both in white t-shirts. The message of the ad was perceived by white women as “Tide gets the clothes clean.” Black women had the same perception but with one difference: they felt respected by the ad because it showed a Black man as a caring father in a way that resonated with their own views and experiences. The ad ran in the Black and general markets very successfully. In November 2021, P&G’s CMO Marc Pritchard said, “In the past year more than half of our sales growth in North America came from multicultural segments.”

Mexican culture values family. Mothers are highly respected in Mexican culture and a good ad will show respect for family, mothers and traditions. For example, one Coca-Cola ad showed Mexican moms sharing a song and a Coke, reinforcing the ideas of tradition and that mothers are strong nurturers. 

See them for who they are

Before your next research endeavor, I encourage you to: watch the “Widen the Screen” videos from P&G to get a sense of how self-biases affect your perceptions of what you see; read about the history of Mexican Americans, Black Americans and Asian Americans and learn about their cultural values, identities and preferred communication styles; consider hiring inclusive researchers who can treat people of color with respect and appreciation, understanding their cultural values, identities and preferred communication styles; and look for code-switching in your focus groups. 

My hope is that you and your company would like to see people of color for who they are by providing an in-culture research experience that generates insights and drives results. By following some of the tips I’ve outlined here, you will be well on your way to doing just that.