What is Unconscious Bias?

Published on: Mon 1 December 2014 by Admin

Unconscious Bias in Every Day Life

In a report by John Blake, CNN, I read the results of a psychological experiment I’d not come across before. It really took me back!

“They showed people a photograph of two white men fighting, one unarmed and another holding a knife. Then they showed another photograph, this one of a white man with a knife fighting an unarmed African-American man. When they asked people to identify the man who was armed in the first picture, most people picked the right one. Yet when they were asked the same question about the second photo, most people — black and white — incorrectly said the black man had the knife.”

He titles the report: The New Threat: ‘Racism without Racists’. An apt title. He is precisely right. These people aren’t consciously being derogatory about black people; this is the work of their unconscious.

Unconscious Bias in a Sentence (well, three)

Our brains are bombarded with thousands of messages at any one time, so to speed things up they have evolved so that we don’t have to see the world as if for the first time, every time. Through a clever, unconscious sorting process, we rapidly filter through thousands of stimuli making assumptions based on an archive of associations we store from repetitive or poignant experiences from our upbringing, the media, work etc. As a result, we unconsciously show subtle (or sometime overt!) bias against, or towards, certain groups of people.

Unconscious Bias is Rife! Giving You The Heads Up

As specialists in bespoke in-house learning and development solutions, we have been particularly interested in the impact this phenomenon is having in the workplace. What is pertinent is that Unconscious Bias affects many facets of a business from Management, Leadership, Customer Service, Sales, Marketing and HR:

  •  Staff are performance managed, mentored and promoted more fairly than others
  • Customer service & complaints handling is inconsistent
  • Marketing campaigns are impacted
  • Recruitment and selection processes are no longer fair and impartial
  • Organisations aren’t as equal, diverse, or cost-effective as they could (or should) be

The Continuing Impact of Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

You can do all the training you like: compulsory Equality and Diversity training for all; modular Management Development; roll a Customer Service programme out across the organisation; and give recruiters the training they need to be fair selectors and tip-top interviewers. However, if no one is aware that their decisions might be influenced by hidden biases then for all the will (and the training) in the world, an organisation will always suffer the consequences.

We can’t and wouldn’t want to train this out of people. Individual differences add a richness to life. However it is important that we equip decision makers with the knowledge and tools to miminise any unwanted impact.