Unconscious Bias

18 Feb

Unconscious Bias

This sermon, “Unconscious Bias,” was originally delivered to the congregation of Harmony, a Unitarian Universalist Community, on February 18, 2018. It is published here with permission from the writer, with all rights reserved.

By Karen Morgan

Think about the feelings you had when you were watching this video. When you saw the different groups walking in, did you have feelings for or against any of them? Paying attention to your thoughts and feelings when you meet someone for the first time is going to be a key factor in uncovering unconscious bias.

Bias is a prejudice in favor of or against a thing, person, or group compared with another usually in a way that’s considered to be unfair.

There are two types of biases:

  1. Conscious bias (also known as explicit bias) and
  2. Unconscious bias (also known as implicit bias)

It is important to note that biases, conscious or unconscious, are not limited to ethnicity and race. Though racial bias is well documented, biases may exist toward any social group. Today I will be focusing on unconscious bias.

Unconscious biases are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. Everyone holds unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups, and these biases stem from our human tendency to organize social worlds by categorizing.

Unconscious bias is far more prevalent than conscious bias and is often incompatible with one’s conscious values.

Here’s what the research shows:

  • Unconscious biases develop at an early age: biases emerge during middle childhood and appear to develop across childhood.
  • Unconscious biases do have real effects on our behavior.
  • Unconscious biases are malleable-one can take steps to minimize the impact of unconscious bias.

A substantial amount of research has been published demonstrating that unconscious bias has impact in various domains including the criminal justice system, education, hiring, and healthcare.

Why do we have unconscious biases?

Many researchers suggest that unconscious bias occurs automatically as the brain makes quick judgments based on past experiences, stereotypes, and personal background. We instinctively categorize people and things using easily observed criteria such as age, weight, skin color, and gender. And we also classify people according to educational level, disability, sexuality, accent, social status, and job title, automatically assigning presumed traits to anyone we subconsciously put in those groups. As a result of unconscious bias, certain people benefit and other people are penalized.

The “advantage” of this system is that it saves us time and effort processing information about people, allowing us to spend more of our mental resources on other tasks. The clear disadvantage is that it can lead us to make assumptions about them and take action based on those biases. This results in a tendency to rely on stereotypes, even if we don’t consciously believe in them.

What are examples of unconscious biases?

Unconscious feelings can play a strong part in influencing our judgement of certain people and groups. One of the most prominent areas of life where bias can play out is the workplace. In fact, one of the strongest biases we have in the workplace is gender bias. Why? Well, our feelings about gender and the stereotypes we’ve all associated with gender are something we’ve developed throughout our whole lives. How we’ve been brought up, where we’ve been brought up, our socialization experiences, who our friends are/were, as well as media influences, all affect how we think and feel about certain types of people – and especially about what makes a man a man and what makes a woman a woman.

Here are some other types of unconscious bias:

Conformity bias

Based on a famous study that’s been around for decades, conformity bias relates to bias caused by group peer pressure. In the study, a group of people is asked to look at the height of a line in a picture on the left and say which of the lines shown on the right matches the line on the left. One individual is told to say what they think. The rest of the group is told to give the wrong answer. Based on peer pressure, the first individual usually changes their mind to conform with the group.

Physical bias

This is the view that we tend to think that the most handsome individual will be the most successful. But this can also play out in terms of other physical attributes a person may have.

For example, while 36% of US CEOs are over 6.2 feet, only 4% of the US population is over 6.2 feet tall. So this shows some bias in terms of how we perceive what a CEO should look like.

Affinity bias

This plays out a lot in terms of hiring. Affinity bias occurs when we see someone we feel we have an affinity/connection with e.g. we attended the same college, we grew up in the same town, or they remind us of someone we know and like.

Similarity bias

Naturally, we want to surround ourselves with people we feel are similar to us. And as a result, we tend to want to work more with people who are like us.

Other examples of bias might include thinking:

  • A person with a southern accent is a fundamentalist Christian
  • An overweight person is lazy
  • Mental health issues aren’t “real” and people should just be able to get over them
  • Someone without a college education isn’t as intelligent as someone with a degree
  • Having a son is better than having a daughter
  • And the list goes on…

Here are some personal examples:

One of my biases was that middle-aged white men won’t be accepting of my sexual orientation. There was a situation a few years back when I was becoming friends with a man in my organization. I was worried about his reaction if he found out I was gay, so I didn’t say anything. Then one day he showed up at my cubicle with a funny look on his face and I thought, oh no, he found out. Well – yes, he found out, but the reason was that he was looking on line for a LGBT focal at GE to talk to about his sister, who is gay and estranged from the family. He wanted some help to understand how to bridge the gap. It turned into a wonderful conversation. So my assumed bias had no basis in reality. This experience helped me to turn an unconscious bias into a conscious one so that I could be aware of it and act accordingly in the future.

Another bias I had is around education. Since I have a college education, I was more comfortable around people with college educations and avoided building relationships with others. My discomfort was around not knowing what to talk about, or feeling awkward. I have actively worked to change this bias. In one of my recent positions at GE I was the customer support manager for KLM airlines. I interacted with people from the CEO of the airline to the mechanics who build the engines. There was a group of 10 or so mechanics who came to Cincinnati for training. I didn’t know any of them, and arranged a happy hour while they were here. I was a bit nervous. They all showed up and as they walked into the bar, I got more nervous – 10 big tall guys – what was I going to talk about? Well we sat down and just started chatting and by the end of that happy hour I was having really great conversations with several of the guys. One of them has become a good friend, and when I would travel to Amsterdam for business I would get together with he and his wife to do things over the weekends.

It’s important to mention however, that most bias stereotypes do not come from a place of bad intent. It’s just a deep seated, unconscious stereotype that’s been formed in our brains through years of different influences we often had no control over.

How does bias affect our actions?

“Most of us believe that we are ethical and unbiased. We imagine we’re good decision makers, able to objectively size up a job candidate and reach a fair and rational conclusion that’s in our, and our organization’s, best interests,” writes Harvard University researcher Mahzarin Banaji in the Harvard Business Review. “But more than two decades of research confirms that, in reality, most of us fall woefully short of our inflated self-perception.”

Yes, in reality our biases affect us and our decision-making processes in a number of different ways:

  • Our perception – how we see people and perceive reality.
  • Our attitude/feelings – how we react towards certain people.
  • Our behaviors – how receptive/friendly we are towards certain people.
  • Our attention – which aspects of a person we pay most attention to.
  • Our listening skills – how much we actively listen to what certain people say.
  • Our micro-affirmations – how much or how little we comfort certain people in certain situations.

For example:

  • Fictitious resumes with White-sounding names sent to help-wanted ads were more likely to receive callbacks for interviews compared to resumes with African-American sounding names.
  • Science faculty rated male applicants for a laboratory manager position as significantly more competent and hireable than female applicants with the same qualifications. Faculty also selected a higher starting salary for the male applicant.
  • Since 1997, more than 30 studies have been published relevant to unconscious bias and clinical decision-making. Racial bias is prevalent among healthcare providers and it appears that race influences their medical decision making.

How to avoid unconscious bias

Recent studies within cognitive science point us to the conclusion that biased decisions are not made by bad people with bad attitudes, but rather by well-intentioned people who are unaware of the internal unconscious processes that may be affecting their decision-making every day.

So, how do you stop yourself from falling prey to the dangers of unconscious bias? The simple answer is to make the unconscious, conscious. Increase your awareness of your unconscious biases. By acknowledging the different types of unconscious bias we can start to address them.

Recognize your own biases

You need to be honest with yourself about the stereotypes that affect you. For example, you may consciously think that men and women are equally effective leaders but, as a woman, you believe that men perhaps don’t have the same level of empathy and people skills as women. That subconscious bias could influence your actions towards men.

Neurological tests and exercises can uncover unconscious biases and reduce their influence. One way to reveal your own unconscious bias is by taking the Implicit Association Test (IAT), created by researchers from Harvard, Virginia and Washington universities. This measures the strength of links you make between concepts, for example race or sexuality; and evaluation of stereotypes, such as whether those concepts are good or bad.

The IAT measures the relative strength of associations between pairs of concepts. It is designed as a sorting task in which individuals are asked to sort images or words that appear on a computer screen into one of two categories. The basic premise is that when two concepts are highly correlated, people are able to pair those concepts more quickly than two concepts that are not well associated.

Here are a couple examples highlighting the use of the IAT in healthcare.

  • A greater pro-White bias among physicians resulted in an increased likelihood of prescribing thrombolytics for White patients compared to Blacks presenting with acute coronary syndrome.
  • A greater pro-White bias was associated with a greater inclination to prescribe pain medications for White versus Black children.

Here are some individual strategies to address unconscious bias:

  1. Promoting self-awareness: recognizing one’s biases using the Implicit Association Test (or other instruments to assess bias) is the first step. You can’t do anything about something unless you are aware of it.
  2. Engage in self-reflection to uncover personal biases – be more aware of your feelings and reactions towards others.
  3. Understanding the nature of bias is also essential. The strategy of categorization that gives rise to unconscious bias is a normal aspect of human cognition. Understanding this important concept can help individuals approach their own biases in a more informed and open way – i.e., you don’t need to feel guilty about it.
  4. Opportunities to have discussions, with others (especially those from socially dissimilar groups) can also be helpful. This is about sharing your stories and listening to the stories of others, and being able to ask questions. Sharing your biases can help others feel more secure about exploring their own biases.
  5. Take a training class on unconscious bias.
  6. Use visualization imagery. Imagine a positive contact with the group or person toward whom you may have a bias. Research has shown that simply visualizing a particular situation can create the same behavioral and psychological effects as actually experiencing it. For example, in tests, individuals who imagined a strong woman later showed less gender stereotyping than people who had imagined a vacation.
  7. Pay particular attention to your choices when you are feeling tired, rushed or stressed, as these situations tend to activate our biases
  8. Avoid stereotypes and over-generalizations. Separate feelings from facts.
  9. Be an active ally for other diverse groups – speak up, attend events, ask questions
  10. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Think of a person in your neighborhood or at work who you would normally avoid and instead purposefully engage and get to know them.
  11. Building relationship is the key here. This takes time, of course, so don’t expect a quick fix.
  12. Go see the exhibit “Open Your Mind: Understanding Implicit Bias” at the Freedom Center

No matter how unbiased we think we are, we all have subconscious negative opinions about people who are outside our own group. The more exposed we are to other groups of people, the less likely we are to feel prejudice against them. If we can get past our biases, then we can reap the benefits of diversity in our communities, our workplace and, yes, even our families (bias can be around our expectations of our children – ie studying math or science is better than English, or playing sports is better than being in the band). Benefits are numerous and can include reduced inequalities; increased group cohesion; enhanced relationships; and greater appreciation for equity, diversity, and inclusivity.

As the first video highlights, we have more in common than what separates us. Building relationships with people different than us is the key strategy. By connecting with people, we realize our shared humanity. Our unconscious biases will make some of these connections initially uncomfortable, however we need to lean into our discomfort, engage, listen, share our stories, and ask questions.

Karen Morgan is a member of Harmony UU.

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