1 Unconscious bias
We all experience unconscious bias, it’s the way our brains work. Our unconscious biases can lead us to develop and rely on stereotypes which, in turn, can lead to prejudice and discrimination. So, it is important to raise our awareness of them and take actions to mitigate their impact.
The human brain can receive many more pieces of information than it can consciously process, so we have to rely on our subconscious to take short cuts. These short cuts are influenced by a wide range of factors.
The Managing Director of EW Group (Wilson, no date) defines unconscious bias as ‘what happens when we act on subconscious, deeply ingrained biases, stereotypes, and attitudes formed from our inherent human cognition, experiences, upbringing, and environment.’ She explains further:
If you act on your gut instincts, kneejerk reactions, or assumptions, there’s a chance you’re opening yourself up to unconscious bias. This can mean people affected by your actions might be unfairly discriminated against or favoured without you even realising, even if you don’t believe in stereotypes.
There are many different types of unconscious bias, some of which are outlined in this short video from the Democratic Society:
Transcript: Video 2: Unconscious Biases- Democratic Society UK
Other biases that are commonly experienced in the workplace include:
Affinity bias – which describes how we gravitate towards people who share our background, interests, values and beliefs.
Halo and horn effect – where our judgement of a person is based on a particular characteristic that we observe, i.e. one good thing about them leads us to believe they are good at lots of things (halo), or one bad trait leads us to believe they are bad at other things too (horn).
The impact of unconscious bias can be varied, potentially affecting how intently we listen to someone, who we assign credit or blame to, who is trusted with high-profile work, the feedback we give to different people and even our body language when we are in their company.
There are too many biases to methodically go through each one every time we make a decision, so Lewis (2017) explains the work of the NeuroLeadership Institute, which groups all these biases into 5 underlying causes with their SEEDS model:
- Similarity – we think people similar to ourselves are better than others
- Expedience – we think our first feeling must be true
- Experience – we think our subjective perceptions are objectively true
- Distance – we think people closer to us are better than those far away
- Safety – we think bad outcomes are more powerful than good outcomes (risk averse).
Although we all have biases and we can’t make them go away, we can become more aware of them.
Ritchie (2021) suggests six ways to reset the way we think:
- Understand what unconscious bias is – being aware of it will help you to spot it
- Be curious – curiosity makes us more open-minded and can protect us from a host of biases
- Stop and think – pausing gives you time to reflect on instinctive reactions and to ask yourself questions such as ‘What could I know?’, and ‘What should I know?’
- Seek diversity – if you mix with people from outside your traditional circle, that will help to break down assumptions
- Listen and learn – your workplace may offer formal and informal opportunities to nurture curiosity about diversity and inclusion
- Consider organisational policies – your company may already support initiatives to counter bias and to further embed diversity and inclusion.
On this last point about policies, you may also want to analyse the various steps in your current processes and plans, to work out how bias might influence your actions and decisions.
Unconscious bias is often discussed in the context of recruitment, and you’ll explore that aspect in more detail in Week 6.
Activity 1 Your own Unconscious biases
Reflecting on the six examples of unconscious bias outlined in the Democratic Society video, i.e.
- anchoring bias
- bandwagon effect
- blind spot
- confirmation bias
- information bias
- authority bias.
choose one, and spend some time thinking about examples of your own unconscious biases in that category. For example, do you often jump on the bandwagon even when you feel that the group might be wrong? Do you have a tendency to rebel against authority?
A recent example of authority bias would be refusing to have your COVID vaccination due to a distrust of the government.
This is a useful exercise to undertake as many of us can feel ashamed of our biases. By confronting them and understanding that they are entirely normal and based on our life experiences and instincts, we can start to recognise and question them. This is a strong step towards ensuring that we don’t continue to act on them.
If you want to explore your own biases in a more structured way, Harvard University provides a range of ‘Implicit Association Tests’, intended to measure attitudes and beliefs that people are not always willing or able to report. You can find them here: Project implicit [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .
We also tend to rely on our biases more when we are tired, stressed or having to make a decision quickly, so taking care of our overall wellbeing can also play a part in tackling them.
Unconscious bias training
Atcheson (2021) feels that ‘Training hiring managers and interviewers on unconscious bias is essential. That way they can start to spot it in themselves, in their fellow interviewers and even in debrief.’ She also signals its importance in leaders and managers to help them understand the bias that someone in their team is experiencing, and to look out for and address it.
Many organisations offer unconscious bias training to their staff, with the aim of raising their awareness and changing their behaviour. However, some organisations, including the UK government, have recently been cancelling the training due to insufficient evidence of its success.
Herbert (2021) looks at this in detail in a recent blog post, concluding that as a one-off, standalone training programme, there is no strong evidence for its effectiveness in reducing implicit prejudice. But there is evidence to support significantly increased awareness, and ‘while it is generally accepted that awareness is not a sufficient condition for behavioural change, it is usually necessary.’
He suggests that unconscious bias training provides a ‘foundation on which other interventions can be built’, and goes on to outline indirect effects, including:
- if key groups within an organisation ‘find it valuable to have a forum where the day-to-day bias they face is acknowledged and recognised’ then the training is ‘helping to create a more inclusive work culture’
- the training can signal managerial commitment to diversity, which is known to be linked with a workforce’s willingness to engage with it.
Pressure to conform
Another unwanted side effect of unconscious bias is that your diverse team members may feel a pressure to conform and slowly quiet themselves.
This is why creating a safe space for people to be their authentic selves is so important, and you’ll look at that in more detail in Week 8 when you explore groupthink.
In the next section, you’ll look at something which links closely with unconscious bias, and that’s the concept of privilege.