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Unconscious Bias – an explanation

What is unconscious bias?

We all use unconscious bias many times each day. Historically it was beneficial when our ancestors had to fight for survival, as misjudging friend from foe could make the difference between life and death. These days “social categorisation” is the name given by psychologists to the process where we unconsciously sort people into groups. Within our human makeup, we prefer people who look and sound like us and whose background is similar to ours. Over time, we create our own biases based on our family, culture, and life experiences. We do this without using normal, rational or logical thinking; you often hear people saying they made a decision based on their “intuition” or “gut feeling”, for which they may really mean they followed their unconscious biases. In today’s fast-paced world, our brains have to process information quickly and look for patterns within it. This categorisation is a useful and necessary characteristic; however, unconscious bias can lead us to make subjective decisions that can cost our organisation dearly on the work front.

What effect can it have in the workplace today?

The reason unconscious bias is of increasing interest in the workplace is that as the categories we use to sort people are not logical and perhaps not legal, our biases can often be unfair and lead to poor decision making. Think of the decisions taken every day, which could be affected by the decision maker’s unconscious bias. Such decisions could be made with a corresponding difference of outcomes for the organisation if an awareness of bias were prevalent. Unconscious bias can affect how we assess risk, listen to advice, recruit or select people for promotion, give or withhold support, as well as our ability to process facts objectively. So the organisation’s productivity, competitiveness, creativity, customer service and morale can all be affected.

Can some examples illustrate the effect of unconscious bias?

Our unconscious biases can be the opposite of what we like to tell people or even think we believe. Research has shown a massive discrepancy between what people will confidentially admit is a conscious bias and their actual unconscious biases. Past studies have shown that although almost no-one would admit to discriminating against women, almost 40% of people have unconscious biases against a particular gender or race. When a group of people were shown images of the faces of people whose characteristics (age, colour etc.) differed to their own, brain imaging scans illustrated that in less than a tenth of a second, their “amygdala” (the part of the brain which plays an important role in processing emotions) was alerted. They made an irrational prejudgement of the people shown in the images. Every time we meet a group member, our associations and biases are activated, even though we consciously believe we reject a group stereotype. For example, it has been discovered that almost 60% of corporate CEO’s in America are over 6 feet tall. This is probably not a startling statistic in itself until you are told that less than 14% of American men are over 6 feet tall. Presumably, job specifications do not include height, so the statistic must be down to the unconscious height bias of the members of various selection boards. There’s also the glass ceiling argument. It’s rarely mentioned but could it, in fact, be women’s own unconscious biases that hold them back from reaching their true potential? If there are no female role models in their workplace environment, do they rely on their unintentionally learned biases to protect themselves from the fear of failure rather than use them as a catalyst for change and push themselves to reach the top of their organisation? Another important group in society affected by unconscious bias in the workplace are disabled people. According to recent research, levels of unconscious bias against disabled people are higher now than before the apparently positive impact of the London 2012 Paralympics Games. A sorely disappointing fact but all the more reason for awareness to be raised, role models to speak out, and the reputation of disabled people in the workplace are just as productive, hard-working, and loyal as their non-disabled peers be highlighted.

Can we change our unconscious biases?

It isn’t so much what we can or cannot change, as about an awareness and understanding of the difference between our conscious and unconscious biases, which can improve the decisions we make about people in the workplace and, indeed, in society at large. So it is more about managing our unconscious biases, and this will not just benefit others. By learning to control and manage our unconscious biases, we can prevent them from becoming our natural behaviour and release emotional and thought processes, leading to better, fairer decision making, improved problem-solving skills, enhanced logical reasoning, and greater perseverance.

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