In this blog we delve into the physiological effects of Unconscious Bias, recognising your own biases and why these matter. As you read on, reflect for yourself as we guide you through how to overcome these effects. Gain greater control of your own decision-making. 

Why is this important?

Our unconscious brain processes information up to 200,000 faster than the conscious brain. This part of your cognitive engine is hyper-efficient and is able to sift through all this information at lightning speed by outlining immediate patterns. This then rewires your brain by making indelible correlations that influence your behaviour and future decision-making. 

There has been a huge push in workplaces across the world for more diversity and inclusion in the past few years. Many companies have targets, outcomes and mission statements centered around having a diverse workforce, reflective of the wider population. This push to prioritise skill above characteristics, however, can only be achieved once implicit biases are recognised, otherwise a substantial impact risks being diluted.  

Imagine this

It’s 6.30am on Monday. You’re woken by a loud rumbling. The waste disposal truck crashes and bangs its way along the road outside your window. You look out to see one of the bin collectors picking up your neighbours rubbish which has somehow found its way across the pavement again. 

There’s no getting back to sleep, so you get up, get dressed and head out on a long walk through the park before work. You go into a brand new cafe that’s just opened up where the smiley barista loads up a double espresso for the day ahead. It’s a short stroll into work but you take your time. You’ve left your employee ID pass at home again but Tony, the young doorman buzzes you through. 

Now think back to your story. Of the people clearing rubbish off the street, how many were women? In that cafe, was the barista white? Does Tony check staff IDs while standing or from his wheelchair?

Those were the assumptions you made based on your own preconceived notions of what people with these jobs look like. These come from a host of life experiences.

What is Unconscious Bias?

Unconscious bias is defined as “social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness.”

As social beings we need ways to categorise the world around us. We start doing this at a young age predominantly as a learning mechanism; to find patterns, make connections and simplify the abstract. Then we adapt our own behaviour accordingly. 

This method gives us helpful boxes to chunk the world into. However, a lack of nuance can also lead to glossing over important detail or even misreading situations entirely. This is where our unconscious bias starts to impact the mastery of our own mindset.

Outlined below are five key areas:

  1. Affinity Bias – we have a tendency to like people who look more like us, sound like us or have a similar background. People who make us more likely to gloss over any faults. Conversely, this can lead us to be more critical of those we perceive as ‘different’. 
  2. Confirmation Bias – we actively search for information which backs up a preconceived notion and become blind to evidence that contradicts this theory.
  3. Attribution Bias – jumping to conclusions before knowing the full picture. If a team member is underperforming it can be very easy to heap assumptions onto them. We can attribute blame for the failure of a project without knowing the full story of their workload, home circumstances or wider job demands. 
  4. Gender Bias – a 2017 study by Harvard Business School found that both men and women are more likely to hire a man. Subtleties of language and the prioritisation of subjective skill sets contribute to men being hired on average 1.5x more than their female counterparts.
  5. Conformity Bias – Individuals are more easily persuaded when the majority of the group is of one opinion. Also known as ‘group mentality’. This can lead us to compromise on our own beliefs in favour of fitting in or not wishing to be difficult. 

Recognising Unconscious Bias in Yourself

Reflect for a moment. It is likely that you employ all of these to some degree in different areas of your life. A typical example is in the hiring process, when we are forced to make fast decisions on candidates based on limited information. 

Ask yourself: can you identify times, either at work or in your home life where you made a biased decision? Why was that? Would you go back and change that decision now?

Moving Towards Conscious Decisions

We all need to be aware and take responsibility for our choices and work towards reasoned, factual-decision making is an integral part of that.

It is important to note that unconscious bias is not always a negatively skewed occurrence. You may recognise yourself in a young, struggling team member and want to go out of your way to help them as someone once did for you. 

These biases may be inherently unconscious, but they are not permanently beyond our control and understanding. It is only through practise and unflinching honesty that we can start to master our choosing mechanism. 

What can we do about it?

Firstly, having certain unconscious biases does not make you a bad person! Many of these will have been built up in our childhood or from perfectly rational stimuli at the time. 

  1. Slow down. Due to the processing speed of our brains, we are far more likely to make a prejudiced decision when in a rush. First think. Do you have all the information needed or have you leapt to a conclusion? If in doubt, stop. Meditate, go for a walk, physically reset and cast your mind onto something else before coming back to the decision afresh. 
  2. Analyse yourself. Have you been presented with a situation like this before? Is that now affecting the way you are behaving now? Are there certain environmental factors at play such as your mood or a pressurised setting that could be influencing you?
  3. Diversify your life. Do you tend to gravitate towards certain types of people? How diverse are the important people in your life? An affinity with particular groups may be creating a ‘halo effect’, where a positive impression of one person influences the impression of another.
  4. Be honest. We all get it wrong, no one person can completely eradicate all the subconscious factors in their lives. It is important, however, to hold our hands up, admit when we may have made an error and use this to improve and grow so that these choices become more fair, justified and in control over time. 

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