What is unconscious bias?

Our unconscious capacities play a significant role in our practical decision making. This ensures that we are much less systematic and analytical than we believe we are. They interfere in our decision making processes, without our awareness, and so contribute to unconscious bias.

Our conscious minds process about 40 pieces of information each second, which is a small share of the total information available to us. It’s estimated that our unconscious mind deals with between 8 million and 40 million pieces of information in that same second.

Our unconscious mind handles information by taking a number of shortcuts using automatic associations that are learned patterns. This significantly aids our decision making. For example, we don’t have to go into the same situation 50 times, experience it as brand new each time we do, and expend valuable conscious resources working out what to do.

While these shortcuts are positive in helping us make sense of the world, they are also powerful contributors to misjudgement. When we evaluate people, we do so on the basis of their group membership, rather than individual characteristics.

Unconscious attitudes develop early in our socialisation, and over time become automatic. We continue to use the same interpretations, or miss the same cues, over and over, without even knowing it.

Unconscious gender bias is based on our society’s way of understanding gender. Gender schema, the roles that men and women should play, is learnt early, thoroughly, stored in memory and accessed without awareness.

What most people are unaware of is that we have an interesting duality of beliefs: our conscious and unconscious beliefs are quite likely to contradict each other. That’s particularly the case for contentious issues, like gender and race. It applies to people who believe themselves to be egalitarian: conscious egalitarian beliefs co-exist with unconscious beliefs in the same person. In general, what we say represents our conscious beliefs, while what we do, particularly our nonverbal behaviour, is more representative of our unconscious beliefs.

The kinds of biased decisions that we make include:

  • Liking people who are most like us, those with whom we share an affinity such as the same gender, and we favour them over others
  • Paying attention to information that confirms gender schema, for example, we pay attention to instances when women appear unconfident but disregard those instances when women display confidence

Conscious beliefs shape deliberative, well-considered responses where people have the opportunity to weigh costs and benefits of courses of action.

Unconscious beliefs influence responses that are more difficult to control, such as nonverbal responses, or responses that are automatic that people don’t try to ‘control’.

 

Unconscious bias is most likely to occur when:

– We don’t have clear decision criteria

– We don’t have or take the time to deliberate on our decisions

– Information is ambiguous so it’s not clear how it helps us make the decision

– There is no open scrutiny of the decision

 

For example, in research exploring hiring decisions, the same CV is given to different ‘selection committee members’ and the gender of the candidate is randomly assigned. When the candidate is high performing or low performing, the decision is very clear. However, when a candidate’s qualifications for a position are moderate, that is, they are neither high performing nor badly performing, the decision becomes more ambiguous. Under these circumstances, men are much more likely to be selected than women, even where the CVs are identical.

This shows how unconscious bias can occur without awareness and often without intention. The basis for the decision is misattributed to a lack of skills or qualifications rather than gender.

 

Decisions, particularly those that relate to talent and leadership, can generally benefit from the following approaches:

– Survey a wide range of objectives

– Assess all relevant values

– Canvass alternative courses of action while evaluating the positive and negative effects, costs and risks of each

– Make rating and evaluation processes anonymous wherever possible

– Search for and assimilate new information, including data that counters current biases and effects

– Avoid rapid closure to the decision-making process

– Make extensive provisions for the implementation of decisions

– Produce contingency plans to address the ramifications of initial decisions

 

In the short term, eliminating unconscious bias is unrealistic and unlikely: it’s not a problem we can ‘fix’. Attuning people to their own biases builds awareness and starts a change process. Mindful attention to the likelihood of bias in a range of situations, such as selection and development processes and making use of deliberative decision processes sets up the opportunity to minimize unconscious bias.

 

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