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About Unconscious Bias

Unconscious bias refers to the “social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness”.7

Our brain is hard-wired to help us make instant decisions. Without us being aware of it, and without our active involvement, this can influence the quality and accuracy of our understanding, actions, and decisions. Nevertheless, with conscious effort and practice it can be managed for better, more objective decision-making.

How does unconscious bias work?

  • To navigate our complex world and make quick decisions, our brain takes mental shortcuts.
  • We can process roughly 11 million bits of information every second. Only 40–50 of these bits are handled by our conscious brain–the rest is done unconsciously.
  • Upon meeting someone, it takes us less than one second to categorize them by race and gender, and whether they are a member of our “in-group”.
  • The issue is that our unconscious brain is influenced by stereotypes (both positive and negative) present in society about certain groups of people.
  • Stereotypes enable us to make rapid judgements when we have incomplete information. Although sometimes these may be based in part on fact, they tend to be inaccurate.
  • So, often, our gut reactions to a person or situation is based on faulty assumptions about their visible or personal characteristics.

Who has unconscious bias?

  • Everyone has unconscious beliefs in one or more areas.
  • They develop from early childhood, influenced over time by our background, education and messaging from the media, amongst other sources.
  • Unconscious bias is very often contrary to our conscious values and beliefs.

Unconscious bias can show up in several ways we interact with others.

  • First impressions bias: Relying too heavily on the first piece of information acquired when making decisions about a person or situation.
  • In-group bias: Responding more positively to people from groups we identify with, rather than to people from other groups.
  • Confirmation bias: Favouring perspectives like our own or seeking out information that validates a perspective we already have.
  • Stereotype bias: Making assumptions based on stereotypes about a group of people.

What can we do about unconscious bias?

We cannot eliminate our biases. They happen automatically without our active involvement. However, we can disrupt them and limit their effects by:

  • being alert in situations when they are more likely to arise, such as when you have to make a quick decision, or a decision based on unstructured or incomplete information;
  • challenging biases when they happen using questions such as: “What evidence do I have to support this conclusion?”, or “How would I react in this situation if this person was more ‘like me’?”

Unconscious biases are difficult to deal with because we do not know they are influencing us. However, there are everyday actions we can take to disrupt unconscious bias and limit its effects on our understanding, actions, and decisions, such as:

  • Don’t rush to judgment: count to 10 and reflect.
  • Watch out for ‘hearing what you want to hear’.
  • Apply HR and people practices consistently and consciously.
  • Get to know people from groups and backgrounds unlike your own.

We’ve developed our biases over the course of our lifetimes, so it will require motivation and persistence to manage them to achieve better talent management results for all.