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Conscious vs. Unconscious Bias
Transcript of Conscious vs. Unconscious Bias
What is unconscious bias?
Psychologists tell us that our unconscious biases are simply our natural people preferences. Biologically we are hard-wired to prefer people who look like us, sound like us and share our interests. Social psychologists call this phenomenon "social categorization‟ whereby we routinely and rapidly sort people into groups.
This preference bypasses our normal, rational and logical thinking. We use these processes very effectively (we call it intuition) but the categories we use to sort people are not logical, modern or perhaps even legal. Put simply, our neurology takes us to the very brink of bias and poor decision making.
Neuropsychologists tell us unconscious bias is built into the very structure of the brain's neurons. Our unconscious brain processes and sifts vast amounts of information looking for patterns (200,000 times more information than the conscious mind).
Brain imaging scans have demonstrated that when people are shown images of faces that differ to themselves, it activates an irrational prejudgment in the brain's alert system for danger; the amygdala. This happens in less than a tenth of a second. Our associations and biases are likely to be activated every time we encounter a group member, even if we consciously think that we reject a group stereotype.
What are the differences in the levels of conscious and unconscious bias in society?
In the graph below, the red line represents the biases people will confidentially admit to. Almost no one will admit to having a prejudice against disabled people or women. However when unconscious biases are measured (the blue line) nearly 40% of people have unconscious biases against particular genders and black people.
This massive discrepancy between our conscious and unconscious biases is the opportunity we have to improve our people decisions, and lever the advantages of talent for the benefit of our organizaitons.
The brain has a 'safety gateway' where these instincts can be shunted to the brain's social processing areas where our actions become empathetic. If this gating and shunting does not take place our instincts become behavior.
How does unconscious bias affect our behavior?
Unconscious bias operates at a very subtle level, below our awareness. It results in almost unnoticeable behaviors (micro behaviors) such as paying a little less attention to what the other person says, addressing them less warmly or talking less to them.
We tend to be less empathetic towards people who are not like us. These behaviors are small and not likely to lead to censure, but long-term exposure is corrosive.
What Can I do about my biases?
We have a bias control mechanism in the brain that prevents our biases becoming behavior. To trigger this mechanism our brain needs to see a mismatch between our wider goals (e.g. our desire to be or to be seen as fair, or not to get fired) and our instinctive people preferences.
Being aware of what biases we have and how strong they are equips us to better manage our unconscious biases because we know which groups may trigger our unconscious categories and when we may need to be more vigilant.
Managing unconscious bias is not just of benefit to others. If we can control and manage our unconscious biases it releases cognitive and emotional resources. These resources lead to better/fairer decision making and enhanced problem solving, increased ability to think in novel situations, better logical reasoning and more persistence.
What actions can I take?
Consider getting tested to identify the types and strengths of your unconscious biases. This can enable you to avoid making unchallenged decisions about groups for whom you know you have negative associations.
Know where you are in terms of your motivation to change or manage your biases. It is unrealistic to expect to change deeply held beliefs, it may be all you can expect to manage them in key situations
Our natural bias control mechanism needs energy to maintain its guard. Making sure we are supplying our brain with energy (sugar) at key times can help us maintain our defenses. Taking breaks during extended or emotional discussions can help.
Remind yourself of the need to be fair and objective at key times , either in your head or with written reminders such as posters and cards.
The Implicit Associations Test is tool that was developed by Harvard University to study bias that people have subconsciously. In the following tests you will be asked to sort various images and words into categories. Depending on the amount of time it takes for you to sort the images/words and the number of times you sort the images/words into the wrong categories a calculation of your bias level will be determined.
It is important to be aware as your taking these tests, that even though you may harbor a bias—that does not necessarily mean you are prejudiced or discriminatory.
Take the Implicit Associations Test for the following categories:
Click the link below, after the tests then return to the training module: