What Is Unconscious Bias? +Top Strategies to Help Avoid It

In today’s post in the diversity & inclusion series here on ThemeKeeper Tuts+, we’ll delve into the important topic of unconscious bias. You’ll learn what unconscious bias is, why it’s important, and what you can do to overcome your own biases (and help your employees do the same).

What Is Unconscious Bias? +Top Strategies to Help Avoid It

If you’re not sure why this topic matters, consider that your unconscious brain processes information 200,000 times faster than your conscious mind. It looks for patterns, and it influences your behaviour whether you like it or not, probably without you even being aware of what’s going on.

What Is Unconscious Bias? +Top Strategies to Help Avoid It

The ability to make quick decisions and judgments can be helpful, but it can also lead to mistakes when those unconscious associations are based on bad information. And we get bad information all the time—I’ll give examples of that later on.

In a business context, your implicit biases could end up leading you to any of the following problems:

  • Hiring the wrong candidate for a job
  • Misunderstanding your customers
  • Undervaluing employees and not getting the most out of them
  • Causing talented employees to get frustrated and leave
  • Promoting unsuitable employees beyond their abilities
  • And much more

We’re talking here about biases that could affect every decision you make in your business life, and yet most people know absolutely nothing about them. Learning about unconscious bias and discovering some ways to overcome it can really help you get ahead in your career and achieve more success in your business life, while also treating people fairly and making the world just a little bit better.

If that sounds good, read on!

1. What Is Unconscious Bias?

Think back over your life, and try to remember all the information that your brain has taken in since you were born.

It’s an impossible task, of course. From your parents’ earliest interactions to school, work, TV, the internet, friends, strangers, books, movies and a million other things, your brain has received an unfathomable amount of information about the world in the course of your life.

Your brain has used all of that information to make associations and establish patterns to help you understand how the world works. Those associations are hard-wired so deep in your brain that you can act without consciously thinking about them at all.

Some of those instant associations are useful. For example, when you see a red light, you don’t need to spend time wondering what it means—you just slam on the brakes.

Others, however, aren’t so helpful. The ones we’re focusing on in this tutorial are to do with groups of people and their characteristics. For example, you may unconsciously associate women with family more than working roles, or you may associate people of other ethnicities with negative personality traits. You may believe that older people have less to offer in the workplace (or you may believe the same thing about younger people). These are unconscious biases, also known as implicit biases.

Consciously, you probably know that these kinds of generalisations about large groups of people are baseless, but unconsciously, your brains have formed associations from the morass of information you’ve had to negotiate throughout your life. These unconscious biases could be about gender, race, age, or any of the other dimensions of diversity we talked about in an earlier tutorial.

Where Does Unconscious Bias Come From?

From Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s famous doll experiment onwards, research has shown that many of these biases are formed early in childhood. One recent study found that being taught prejudiced ideas led young children to form negative attitudes towards other groups, even when their own experiences were positive. Another study found that even apparently harmless schoolroom practices such as teachers saying “Good morning boys and girls” or having boys and girls line up separately led children to express gender stereotypes and discriminate when deciding who to play with.

Add in a lifetime of stereotypes and assumptions that you’ve read in the media or heard from friends and family or seen portrayed in books and movies, and it’s no wonder that you’ve got unconscious biases. It would be a miracle if you didn’t.

Don’t Beat Yourself Up

Having unconscious biases doesn’t make you a bad person. After all, they were formed in an unconscious process based on external information starting way back in early childhood. Later in this tutorial, when we get to self-diagnosis, you may be shocked by some of your biases or want to deny their existence. You may be sure that you’re not biased, that it’s just not who you are.

But that’s the whole point—they’re unconscious biases, so of course they don’t necessarily chime with your consciously held beliefs. Conscious or explicit bias is a completely different thing, and it’s the kind of overt racism or sexism that we tend to think of when we think about prejudice in the workplace. But unconscious bias can be just as damaging, and it tends to be more prevalent (see the graph below), so please try to accept whatever biases you’ve got and just focus on working to overcome them.

What Is Unconscious Bias? +Top Strategies to Help Avoid It

2. The Effect of Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

Our unconscious biases affect every decision we make, and they lead to warped outcomes. For example, here are the results of various different academic studies, compiled by researchers at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School:

  • Blond women’s salaries were 7% higher than brunettes or redheads.
  • For every 1% increase in a woman’s body mass, there was a 0.6% decrease in family income.
  • “Mature-faced” people had a distinct career advantage over “baby-faced” people.
  • Both male and female scientists were more likely to hire men, rank them higher in competency than women, and pay them $4,000 more per year than women.
  • Job applicants with “typically white” names received 50% more callbacks than those with “typically black” names.
  • 58% of Fortune 500 CEOs are almost six feet tall, whereas only 14.5% of the overall male population are that size.

Do you believe that tall people are more effective CEOs? Do you believe that blond women deserve to earn more than brunettes? I doubt it. And there are lots more studies showing lots more warped outcomes for various groups of people.

These outcomes are clearly unfair on those who come out on the wrong side of society’s widely shared stereotypes. That, in itself, is a good enough reason for any ethical business leader to want to take steps to overcome bias.

But if you want extra reasons, consider that these outcomes are also bad for the businesses involved. No board of directors of a Fortune 500 company ever sat down and said, “OK, we’ll pick this guy because he’s tall.” But the statistics imply that height is an unconscious factor not only in their decision, but also in thousands of other decisions throughout the course of those CEOs’ careers and those of their rivals. If height is irrelevant to leadership ability (and I think we can all agree that it is), then the fact that it’s influencing such important decisions is worrying.

If people are getting unfair advantages or disadvantages based on such arbitrary criteria as height and weight, the logical conclusion is that some well-qualified people are missing out on the opportunities they deserve, and their employers are missing out on the talents they could have contributed. And the flipside of that is that some of the people who are being promoted may not be the best candidates.

The effects of unconscious bias also go much further than this. Think about every decision you make in business every single day, and consider that all of those decisions are affected by unconscious brain processes that you don’t understand. Then consider that every single one of your employees is also afflicted by the same problem.

It’s not surprising, then, that so many businesses make such bad mistakes. I outlined some of them in the introduction, such as losing talented employees and misunderstanding your customers. Success or failure in business is determined by the decisions you and your employees make on a daily basis. If those decisions are skewed by unconscious biases, it’ll clearly have a detrimental effect on your business’s prospects.

3. How to Identify Your Unconscious Biases

Before you can work on overcoming your biases, you first have to understand them. But because they’re unconscious, this can be difficult.

But luckily, there are some tools out there to help you. The best one, in my opinion, is Project Implicit, a non-profit organization run by academics at a range of universities who are studying implicit bias.

On the site, you can test your own biases by taking tests in a range of categories such as age, race, gender, sexuality, and disability. It works not by asking you your opinion, but by having you click buttons as fast as you can in response to what flashes up on screen.

The speed of your responses determines the existence of any unconscious biases. For example, if you take longer to click when old people are associated with positive adjectives than negative ones, it shows you’ve got an implicit bias regarding age. Because it all happens so fast, the aim is to bypass your conscious thoughts and get to those instinctive unconscious biases.

What Is Unconscious Bias? +Top Strategies to Help Avoid It

These tools are completely free to use. Although the first screen asks you to log in or register, you can also click the link underneath that to continue as a guest. The site doesn’t collect personally identifying information.

Try to take as many tests as you can, even in areas where you don’t think you’re biased. View it as an information-gathering exercise, without making any judgments about yourself or the results. As I mentioned before, we all have unconscious biases, so it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Be open to the process, and you may be surprised at what you discover.

4. How to Avoid Unconscious Bias

So what can you do about your unconscious biases? Is it possible to overcome them?

In a word, yes. Because unconscious biases often form at an early age and are reinforced over time, it may not be easy to overcome them, but it’s possible. According to a review of academic studies in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

An emerging body of laboratory-based research suggests that strategies are available for regulating implicit biases.

These strategies fall into two categories:

  1. Change-based interventions
  2. Control-based interventions

Change-based interventions aim at overturning your unconscious biases. With control-based interventions, on the other hand, you accept that the biases exist but try not to let them affect your behaviour.

We’ll look at both types of intervention in this section. Here are some strategies you can use to overcome or control your unconscious biases.

1. Increase Your Contact With the Relevant Group

Research has consistently shown that prejudice decreases as people have more contact with different social groups, and the same applies to unconscious bias. Just having contact with the people towards whom you’ve got a bias and learning more about them can help to undermine your bias and replace it with new information.

2. Blind Yourself

OK, not literally. But if you’ve got an important decision to make and you’re worried about being affected by your biases, try not to expose yourself to information that could trigger your biases.

For example, if you’re reviewing resumes, have someone go through and remove the names and other information that would give you clues to the applicants’ gender, race, age, and other factors that could introduce bias. After all, you can’t act on it if you’re not aware of it!

3. Structure Your Decision-Making

If you don’t want your decisions to be based on arbitrary criteria like height and hair colour, then spend some time thinking about what you do want them to be based on. Plan out the criteria you’ll use to make your decision, and then apply those criteria and give evidence to yourself about why you’ve made your final decision.

You’ll need to be careful here—we can be very good at inventing retrospective, rational-sounding justifications for decisions based on gut feel. But the more structure you can inject, the harder it’ll be for you to act on misguided instincts.

4. Counter the Stereotypes

Your unconscious biases exist because your brain formed associations, so it’s logical enough to believe that you can train it to form new associations. For example, if you’ve got a bias against women in the workplace, you could watch movies featuring successful professional women or consciously pair images of women with positive words or phrases.

5. Be Conscious

Just being conscious of your biases and actively thinking about the possible effects of unconscious bias can help you to make better decisions. Try to evaluate your behaviour and take every opportunity to ask yourself whether bias played a part in your decisions.

6. Offer Training

Everyone in your organisation is vulnerable to the effects of unconscious bias. So when you’ve got a handle on your own biases, try to arrange training in which your employees follow the same process of understanding what implicit bias is, discovering their own biases, and developing strategies to overcome them.

7. Learn More

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this tutorial, but there’s plenty more to learn about. To learn more, try this Microsoft eLesson on unconscious bias. Or explore MTV’s Look Different site.

Or watch this TED talk by Vernā Myers on walking boldly towards your biases:

Conclusion

In this tutorial, you’ve learned about unconscious bias: what it is, why it’s important, and how to identify and overcome your own biases.

If you put the lessons into practice, you’ll be well equipped to start making better, fairer decisions in the workplace. You’ll also be in a better position to support diversity in the workplace and start realising the full benefits of diversity.

You’ll never be completely free of bias, but if you work at it over time using the techniques we’ve discussed, you’ll be able to reduce the effect of unconscious bias on your decision-making and start achieving better outcomes. And if you can share what you’ve learned with your employees, you can multiply the impact across your organisation.

I hope you’ve found this tutorial useful. For more articles on similar topics, take a look at our comprehensive guide to improving diversity in your business.