Unconscious Bias (Parts 1-5)

By Joe Cheal, Imaginarium Learning & Development.


Part 1: What is “unconscious bias” and is it a problem?

Have you heard of the Baby James/Baby Jane experiment? Dress a baby in blue and call ‘him’ James. Let someone look after ‘him’ and they tend to encourage activity in the baby, playing with noisier ‘boy’s toys’. Dress the same baby in pink and call ‘her’ Jane… the carer tends to encourage quieter play with the ‘girl’s toys’. In the carer’s role, most of us (without some training/awareness) would do the same.

Let’s start with a definition or two. “Bias” from a psychological perspective is a learnt unconscious ‘behaviour’ which is linked to our values, beliefs and opinions. We develop our bias either directly through experience or indirectly through conditioning. The unconscious part of it simply means it is a mental process or pattern that we have but we are unaware of it.

Is unconscious bias a problem? Our bias causes us to ‘put someone in a box’, to label them in some way. Bias can be positive towards someone else or negative against them. I have also heard this called the ‘halos and horns effect’ (where we assess some folk as angelic and demonise the others). But, if we see people in a positive light, does that not create a better world? In part yes, but for this to work fully, we would need to see ALL other people in a positive light, no matter their qualities, characteristics and background. We would need to value all human beings equally in whoever they are or whatever they do.

The problem arises because (as human beings ourselves) we have to have a ‘them’. In order to understand ‘who WE are’, we need to know ‘who we are NOT’. We will always have a ‘them’… ‘those people’. Interestingly though, we can still have a negative bias towards our own group… because we may have been taught that there is someone else who is better, cleverer, more powerful etc. This ‘sorting process’ is a fundamental psychological function which begins very early in life (whether we are baby Jane or baby James).

To have positive and negative bias is to be human. The trick is to recognise it and make it ‘conscious’. Then we can make a more informed choice as to how we assess others. This state of awareness will be explored further in parts 2 and 3…


Part 2: Why are we bias?

I was amazed years ago when a smart guy I know said he felt intimidated by me because of my intelligence. Let me start this by saying that all the way through school, I got average (or below) marks. I got four A-levels (three Cs and a D). I got a degree (2:2). In my mind, I was the archetypal ‘Average Joe’. So here was someone who believed that I was cleverer than him. And how did this happen? Turns out, it was because I wore glasses (being rather short-sighted!) This encounter changed me in two ways… firstly I became aware of the subtleties and nuances of unconscious bias… and from that day, I decided to be cleverer (and later gained an MSc with a distinction – hoorah!)

Our unconscious bias is a filter through which we experience reality. It affects our perception of e.g. our self, others, ideas, places and things. As human beings, we cannot help but be biased because we all have filters! The ‘danger’ of bias is not only that it affects how we assess and treat others, but also in how we create a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’.

The ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ (a term coined by Robert Merton back in 1948… see that’s me just being cleverer!) is where our beliefs affect our behaviours which in turn support our original belief. We might seek confirmation of our ‘intuition’ or initial assessment of someone. We see/meet another person, stick them in a box and then seek evidence that fits our picture of them in that box. We also ignore any counter evidence, either blanking it (not noticing it) or distorting it (explain it away as an anomaly).

Ellen Langer, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University has done some fascinating research about first impressions. When we meet someone, we make an assessment (are they like me? do I like them? are they friend or foe?). We then look for cues and clues that fit that first impression. Not only do we judge the book by its cover (actually the cover we think we’ve seen), we then try and re-write the book to match the perceived cover.

Our first impressions also determine things like: Do I trust this person? How confident are they? How competent are they? Again… in the box they go!

If you are ever interviewing another person, beware of first impression and the self-fulfilling prophecy. Challenge yourself. If you get a ‘gut feeling’ about someone, ask yourself: what is the difference between ‘intuition’ and ‘prejudice’?


Part 3: How do you know you are biased?

In the 1960s a curious study showed that the majority of people who could drive rated themselves as better than average drivers (even those who were in hospital because they had just caused a road accident!)

According to a recent article in New Scientist (12th May 2018, pp42-43), this ‘self-delusion’ is actually considered to be part of ‘good mental health’. Folks who believe themselves as better than average tend to be happy, contented and care for others, whereas those who do not are called ‘depressive’. (I imagine that folk who consider themselves way above average would then be diagnosed as ‘narcissistic’ or some other such label.)

And so it seems that you and I are rather biased about ourselves! However, what about our bias towards (or against) others? Do you ever find it hard to connect with certain types of people? Do you sometimes find other people (and/or what they do) somewhat irritating? Do you ever talk about certain types of people in less than glowing terms?

In order to become more aware of our personal bias, it might be useful to establish what we might judge other people about. What are some types of bias?

Here’s a list to start you off. Some you will have more bias about and some less so. However, I encourage you to challenge yourself here.

What do you believe about people who are…

  • Female? Male? Transsexual?
  • Transgender? Gender fluid?
  • Lesbian, gay, bisexual?
  • Of another race? Of your own race?
  • Religious? Atheistic? Your religion? A different religion?
  • Physically disabled? Learning difficulties?
  • Politically correct?
  • Using out of date labels for other people?
  • Similar to yourself? Different to yourself?
  • Older than you? Younger than you?
  • Senior in an organisation? Junior in an organisation?

In essence, we might also be biased (and hence make judgements) about someone because of their:

  • Status,
  • Job role/title and the company they work for,
  • Physical appearance (e.g. height, weight, size, dress, wear glasses),
  • Class,
  • Nationality,
  • Geography,
  • Politics,
  • Personality type (e.g. introverted/extroverted),
  • Spelling and grammar

Have a look at the list above. What judgements might you make about those people? And what other categories might you add (there are hundreds of reasons we might have an unconscious bias about ourselves and others!)


Part 4: How might we express bias… and to what extreme?

We all have negative bias to some extent. The question is how much? Consider the following ‘levels’ of bias:

  1. Benevolent Bias – we have positive beliefs/feelings about people. Could this ever be a problem? On its own, probably not. However, it could be an issue if it is in conjunction with negative bias against someone else (i.e. acting for one person and against or at the expense of another).
  2. Mild Negative Bias – we have internal beliefs about people that are not massively destructive.
  3. Prejudice (in thought) – We actively think badly about other people.
  4. Overt Prejudice (in words) – We are disparaging about others in what we say and write.
  5. Discrimination (in action) – We act in ways that exclude or punish others simply for who they are.
  6. Hate Crime (in destructive action) – We act in an illegal fashion with the aim of hurting (physically, mentally or emotionally) another human being because of who they are (particularly based on race, religion, disability, sexual orientation or gender).

If we look at levels 2-5, bias can be expressed in lots of different ways. Notice if you have seen any of the following examples (or realise that you may have done any of them yourself):

  • Rejecting someone (e.g. a job candidate), overlooking or ignoring someone or alienating them, judging someone, feeling sorry for someone because they are ‘less than’.
  • Labelling (e.g. ‘they are…’, ‘you are…’), generalising (e.g. ‘all men…’, ‘none of the managers…’), applying your own map/rules (‘they should…’).
  • Inaction (e.g. not doing something to prevent or report a biased behaviour).
  • Comparing a person to a thing or an animal/insect etc. (This devalues another human being and makes it psychologically easier to justify offensive behaviours towards others).
  • Joking about a person or a group of people because of who they are. Giving someone a ‘nick-name’ based on their race, nationality, religion, gender, disability etc.

The examples above do not form an exhaustive list but are designed to get you thinking about where you may have seen unconscious bias in action. Some behaviours may be subtle and seem apparently innocuous. Other behaviours may be extreme (e.g. abuse, threats, graffiti, vandalism).


Part 5: How might we control and manage our bias?

The first step in controlling and managing our bias has to be ‘awareness’. If we don’t know we have it or that we are doing it, we are unlikely to be able to interrupt it.  Remember that ALL experience is biased in some way; the trick is to understand which bias is problematic. Notice internal reactions, thoughts, feelings, ‘away from’ sensations you might have about a person… is this generalisable (i.e. might you feel that way about all people that fit into their ‘type’)?

If you want to explore and understand more about your own bias, have a look online at the ‘Implicit Association Tests’ on the Harvard University website: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/uk/

Once you have identified that you may have a bias (or two!), here are some things you might do (in no particular order):

  • Choose to step back from first impressions. Remind yourself to look for counter evidence to your initial assessment of someone.
  • When interviewing, make sure you have some objective measures/criteria for candidates.
  • Are you being equal? Ask yourself: Would I treat someone else the same? E.g. if you call a woman ‘love’, would you call a man that too?
  • Visualise/remember someone you like from a similar background to the person you are dealing with now (e.g. race/religion etc.)
  • Remember that DIVERSITY IS GOOD! We cannot exist or thrive without diversity (no matter if it creates apparent differences).
  • Let go of having to be right! Seek the shades of grey between the black and white, the possibilities between the absolutes.
  • Learn to handle differences more effectively (i.e. seek to understand more about the other party and what motivates them).
  • Remember: Empathy dissolves anger. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes for a moment. What are they afraid of? What do they need from you?
  • ‘Intuition’ is simply feedback (usually that which we cannot explain or point to), so treat it as such. It is not ‘fact’!

As a final note, I am not proposing to ignore all internal warnings and alarm bells we might feel. There may be extreme situations where our ‘intuition’ is telling us something valid and we may need to act accordingly. However, what we are exploring here in these articles are the more ‘day-to-day’ experiences of the world.

In this article, we have explored briefly some different strategies you might employ for bringing unconscious bias to the surface and then making a choice as to how you assess a situation and progress. What other strategies do you have? I’d be interested to know…


Click here to contact joe@imaginariumdev.com (and to find out more about Imaginarium in-house training).

To find out more about Imaginarium Learning & Development: www.imaginariumdev.com