3 Key Points
- How biases develop,
- Why most biases are unconscious and
- How to mitigate the influence of unconscious biases.
- All human beings have biases.
- Most of these biases are unconscious; you’re unaware of them.
- You may never know when you’ve based a reaction or decision on an unconscious bias.
- Biases are a product of the way the brain tries to categorize everything it experiences.
- Instead of trying to eliminate your biases, grow more aware of them.
- Becoming conscious of your biases allows you to seek alternative perspectives.
- Businesses and other organizations have biases.
- A culture’s institutions, such as its media, help reinforce widely held biases.
- Examine every stage of your business’s processes for hidden biases.
- Fight bias with small changes, like using neutral pronouns in job descriptions.
Everyone has biases. Over a lifetime, you and every other human being compile a mental database of judgments, beliefs and prejudices. You draw on this resource to make virtually every decision. But, you usually won’t know you’re checking in with your hidden biases because this database is stored in your unconscious mind. It filters your decisions beyond your awareness.
“Human beings are consistently, routinely and profoundly biased.”
Hidden biases explain why subjects in one experiment consistently gave higher ratings to a student application when they thought it came from a male. Corporate recruiters favored a résumé when they thought it came from a white applicant rather than from a black applicant. Environmental conditions can influence decisions: College admissions officials rated applicants higher when they interviewed them on sunny days and lower when they met on rainy days.
“We not only are profoundly biased, but we also almost never know we are being biased.”
People around the globe strive to erase such biases. Nations, states and communities have outlawed discrimination, instituted speech codes, and launched initiatives to foster tolerance in schools, businesses and other organizations. Society has made progress in racial equality, women’s rights, and the acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
“Hidden prejudices and biases are surprisingly influential underpinnings to all the decisions we make, affecting our feelings and, consequently, our actions.”
But intolerance and inequality persist. The results are often unfair and sometimes tragic. Disparities affect how hospitals treat patients of different races. Women’s salaries lag behind men’s. African Americans go to jail at a much higher rate than white Americans. Gay teenagers are four times more likely to kill themselves than straight teenagers. Since the recession began in 2008, anti-immigrant sentiment has increased in the US and Europe.
“Possessing bias is part and parcel of being human. And the more we think we are immune to it, the greater the likelihood that our own biases will be invisible or unconscious to us!”
Most prejudices are invisible to the people who hold them. Your unconscious biases have power only because you remain unaware of them. Increasing your awareness and enlarging your consciousness enables you to confront and undermine the power of your biases.
“Sometimes, dealing more effectively with unconscious bias involves something as simple as just noticing the bias.”
Biases cause mischief, but their presence makes sense in evolutionary terms. The world was a dangerous place for humankind’s primitive ancestors and they needed to sense danger instantly and decide how to react. They learned to categorize people, things and animals quickly and to assign values to them: safe or unsafe, friend or foe. They automatically categorized a new person or situation by searching their memories for similar phenomena from the past. To stay safe, they had to make snap judgments based on superficial cues.
“One of the most effective ways to begin to ‘dis-identify’ with our biases is through exposure to people and groups we harbor biases against.”
The human brain still functions this way: People unconsciously size up strangers by their clothes or accents. You might reject a job candidate because he or she resembles someone you don’t like. You may come up with a conscious reason that’s a rationalization for your gut reaction. Because your biases are unconscious, you can’t determine how much influence they have.
“This is the world we live in today. A self-referential world fueled by a constant flood of information that affirms our already strongly held biases.”
Not all of your biases come from personal experience. You pick up many prejudices because your culture widely supports them. Human beings need a sense of belonging to a group. Cultural standards and norms reinforce that feeling of belonging and unity by inculcating biases against outsiders. Electronic media reinforce group biases. Every political ideology, for instance, has websites and cable TV channels that affirm their adherents’ biases.
“There are now dozens of peer-reviewed studies that demonstrate that liberals and conservatives don’t react differently to the world we are seeing: We each see a different world!”
The Mechanisms of Bias
The way the brain filters reality causes you to create biases. Its mechanisms include:
“The fact that most people are not aware of their bias has almost no bearing on whether or not it is there, or whether or not it motivates our behavior.”
- “Selective attention” – Your consciousness focuses on the things it deems important and ignores others. A famous experiment illustrated how this works: Researchers asked subjects to watch a video of an informal basketball game and to count the number of times the players passed the ball. The subjects were so focused on counting the passes that about half didn’t notice when a man in a gorilla suit walked into the middle of the court, beat his chest and walked off. Subjects saw the gorilla, but their brains failed to process or register the image. Selective attention is useful for navigating a world filled with constant, competing stimuli.
- “Confirmation bias” – When you use this filter, you unconsciously seek information that supports your preconceptions. You see this bias in action when political commentators respond to current events. Liberal and conservative pundits each “cherry pick” from the same information to support their own perspectives. This also happens in business. For example, when you identify people as “high-potential,” you probably give them more opportunities to demonstrate competence, thus confirming your expectations.
- “Pattern recognition” – Your brain will always try to discern repeating patterns in your experiences. When you experience something new, your brain tries to fit that event into an existing template. If a person you see routinely acts in a threatening way, for instance, you assume that he or she will continue that pattern when you next meet.
“Unconscious influences dominate our everyday life.”
The benefits of controlling your biases are obvious. You can take your decision making off automatic pilot. Businesses can tap talent from a wider pool. A more diverse student body would enrich the experience of getting an education.
“Our minds quickly go to the solutions that make the most sense and often miss other possibilities that are right in front of us.”
Why do biases endure? Perhaps they linger because society attacks the problem from the wrong direction. It tries to suppress biases, to shame people out of their prejudices. This approach is more likely to provoke defensiveness, guilt and denial than to inspire change. Acknowledging that everyone has biases and trying to increase each person’s awareness of them would be more productive.
“Knowing not to believe everything you think is a good start toward managing bias.”
Pull your hidden biases into the light to figure out strategies for defusing their influence. Sometimes merely being aware of a bias can reduce its power. That’s what happened with a bias that researchers identified among professional basketball referees. Researchers found that white referees called fouls on black players more frequently than on white players. Black officials called fouls on a disproportionate share of white players. After the study became well known, the discrepancy practically vanished, even though the league took no special initiatives to address it.
“We have a largely unconscious tendency to see ourselves in a positive light.”
Making Bias Less Powerful
Cultivate your awareness of hidden biases and drain their power by following six steps:
- Accept that biases are normal and universal – Feeling guilty about your biases is counterproductive and probably leads to “self-recrimination, denial or self-justification” rather than progress. Once you accept the universality of bias, try to identify your individual biases. One useful way is to take the online “Implicit Association Test.” This test may help you unravel your unconscious attitudes toward people of different groups. You can also unearth some biases by reflecting on the “narrative” of your life – the string of experiences from which you’ve constructed your unique filter on the world. Think about the culture you grew up in and the institutions you participated in, such as your school or house of worship. When you identify the root of a bias, you can consciously “reframe” it. For instance, if you have a negative bias against a racial group, you can change your narrative by seeking stories of people who overcame such biases.
- Learn to observe yourself – When you turn your focus away from the outside world and observe your own reactions to life, your thinking becomes less automatic. Biases generally take advantage of the fact that people rarely focus on the present. They usually respond to the moment by drawing on their memories of past interactions or fear. However, if you heed the present, you can catch your knee-jerk responses in action and modify your behavior.
- “Practice constructive uncertainty” – Human beings have automatic responses because the brain tries to reduce uncertainty as quickly as possible. To your brain, uncertainty signals danger. Defuse these programmed responses by pausing at the moment of uncertainty. Analyze what’s happening, and try to differentiate between the event and your interpretation of it. Observe your reaction and interpretation, and consider alternative reactions and interpretations. Choose the “most constructive, empowering or productive” way to handle the event, and put it into action.
- Pay attention to uncomfortable moments – Sometimes you may feel discomfort around certain types of people or events. The automatic reaction to such a situation is the “fight or flight” response, which calls for making an assessment and deciding whether you need to defend yourself or run. Stop and try to discern if you are truly responding to the current circumstances or if you are unconsciously linking them to past events.
- Get to know people from other groups – If you have negative feelings about a particular group of people, get to know someone from that group or learn about the group’s history and culture. The more you know about a person or group, the harder it is to cling to a stereotype.
- “Get feedback and data” – People often judge the effectiveness of their actions by how those actions make them feel rather than assessing the results by gathering measurable data. To learn if your responses really represent your best thinking or are unconscious reactions, look at the evidence.
“Creating More Conscious Organizations”
Businesses and other organizations develop biases. Be on the lookout for “collective biases” any time you hear the phrase that’s “the way we do things around here.” You’ll find these biases in every decision a group makes in different areas, including hiring, work flow and marketing. When you become aware of these biases, you can put mechanisms in place that lead to more rational decision making.A great example of outsmarting unconscious bias comes from the way symphony orchestras addressed the underrepresentation of women in their ranks. Before 1970, orchestras were about 95% male, a ratio that may have reflected the bias of those who chose the musicians. Beginning in the 1970s, major orchestras instituted blind auditions: They identified candidates by numbers instead of names, and had them play their music from behind a screen. Blind to bias-triggering cues such as race or gender, the listeners could focus entirely on the quality of each person’s musicianship. The number of female orchestra members has increased an average of 25%.Other organizations can use analogous tactics to mitigate the effects of bias. Since the goal is to expand the consciousness of the organization, this effort will differ from the usual ways you might cultivate diversity. Usually, organizations attempt to contend with bias or prejudice by discouraging prejudicial behavior. The result is a culture of “political correctness” that hides the issues you need to examine. Teach your team members to become aware of biases, to learn how biases affect their performance, as well as to work to mitigate those biases.
Signs of Bias
Examine every aspect of your business for signs of bias. Create an organizational map, drawing on employee or customer surveys, focus groups and other data sources to discern patterns in your treatment of various groups. For instance, can you find a consistent pattern in the way your recruiters rate résumés from female and male job applicants? Interview former employees to discern their inside and outside views of your processes.Many of the antibias measures you put in place will be small, but they can have a big impact. For instance, in employee evaluations, eliminate assessments that rate employees with number scores or descriptors like “good” or “poor.” Such ratings invite bias because different supervisors may interpret the rankings in different ways. Utilize a narrative approach, in which you tell employees “what they should stop doing, start doing and continue to do.”
About the Author
Howard J. Ross, professor in residence at the Bennett College for Women, founded the diversity consultancy Cook Ross. He also wrote ReInventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose & Performance.