An Introduction to Unconscious Bias

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An Introduction to Unconscious Bias

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The latest research shows that diversity and inclusion programs have been largely ineffective in ensuring non-discriminatory workplaces

    • Author
    • Author name
      Deloitte Consulting LLP
    • August 13, 2020
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    Candace Atamanik

    Talent & Workforce Research Leader

    Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP

     

    Stacia Garr

    Vice President, Talent & Workforce Research Leader

    Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP

     

    Overview

    Prevailing research has shown that employees who are part of a diverse and inclusive workforce tend to be more engaged, while their employers experience improved performance, including financial metrics. Yet it turns out that the diversity and inclusion programs companies developed with these benefits in mind have been largely ineffective. To truly build a more diverse and inclusive culture, organizations need to understand how unconscious bias affects talent-related decisions. This article provides a brief introduction to the idea of unconscious bias and explains how companies can identify unconscious bias so they can take crucial steps to limit its negative impact rather than merely meet compliance requirements.

    What Is Unconscious Bias?

    “Unconscious bias” refers to automatic snap judgments we make about the people we encounter each day that are outside of our conscious awareness and that can negatively influence our thinking and decision-making. What is surprising about our unconscious biases is that they may be the complete opposite of the beliefs we express to others and explicitly endorse. Unconscious biases may be more useful when it comes to predicting behavior than self-reported biases because they are not inhibited by social desirability or a need to conform to societal norms.

    No one knows precisely where his or her own biases come from. Unconscious biases are influenced by background, cultural environment, and personal experiences. Exposure to commonly held attitudes about social groups fill our minds without our explicit awareness through language and observation of valued roles in our communities. These associations develop over the course of a lifetime as a result of direct and indirect messages from our environment. Early life experiences, news programs, and other forms of media are common sources of unconscious associations. Fortunately, unconscious biases are malleable—that is, the implicit associations that we form can be gradually unlearned and replaced with new, positive mental associations.

    KEY POINT

    Though unconscious biases come from many different sources, they are malleable; they can be unlearned and replaced with positive mental associations.

    How to Override Bias

    Behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman popularized the theory that unconscious bias is a product of our brains operating on a sort of “dual processing system.” “System 1” is unconscious, automatic, fast, and effortless. It relies on our mental schemas about people—our ideas about what is common to all members of a class or group—which are more commonly known as stereotypes. The brain uses these schemas to enable quick decision-making with limited cognitive effort. “System 2,” on the other hand, is conscious, deliberate, slow, and effortful. System 2 thinking falls within our conscious awareness and allows us to use logic and reasoning as part of decision-making.

    People tend to operate primarily using System 1 thinking to make the myriad decisions we face each day. This is because our brains have evolved to rapidly discern potential threats to protect us from harm. Schemas allow us to react quickly upon encountering an unfamiliar person or situation. This means we are biologically predisposed to prefer people who look like us and share our beliefs—and because this preference bypasses our rational thinking, it can result in discrimination. In other words, because schemas are not based on logic, they can cause biased decision-making.

    Fortunately, we can consciously override our initial reactions to people and situations to counteract built-in biases and act in a nondiscriminatory manner. This is System 2 thinking—intentionally slowing down and logically analyzing the available information to make rational, nonbiased decisions.

    KEY POINT

    We can override our initial automatic biased reactions to people (“System 1”) by relying on thinking that is deliberate, slow and rational (“System 2”) to act in a nondiscriminatory way.

    Consequences of Unconscious Bias

    Unconscious biases matter because they are pervasive. Everyone has them, and they affect our decisions, behaviors, and interactions with others. Whether these biases are positive or negative, they can be harmful when they influence our decision-making. Even professionals in positions of authority who should be impartial in their decisions—doctors, police officers, judges, and the like—can be affected by unconscious bias. 

    While unconscious biases can have a number of social and political consequences, there are three potential impacts that are of particular concern for organizations and their workers (see Figure 1):

    • Bias can lead to systemic discrimination. Understanding how unconscious bias can affect decisions is important because of its connection to systemic inequality. A significant body of research has established that unconscious bias can have far-reaching negative impacts on advancement in the workplace as well as decisions in education, the justice system, and healthcare practices. Addressing unconscious bias on both the individual and institutional level is critical for achieving greater equality both in the workplace.  
    • Bias stifles creativity. Unconscious bias can lead to confirmation bias (the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one's existing beliefs or theories), which can stifle innovation in organizations. Our brains are quick to confirm our preexisting assumptions, leading us to become close-minded and likely to dismiss the ideas that do not match our own. Patterns of belief are so deeply ingrained in our unconscious thoughts that it may be difficult for us to fully understand their impact on our decisions, including those surrounding new ideas.  
    • Bias creates negative brand perceptions. Organizations that exhibit unfair hiring or promotion practices based on unconscious bias may receive negative media attention. This unwanted attention will affect their employment brand and reputation both inside and outside the organization. Potential candidates may reconsider applying to an organization with a known history of bias. Many jobseekers are looking for companies that represent inclusive values and cultures in which their differences will be appreciated and valued.  

    KEY POINT

    Bias can lead to systemic discrimination, stifle innovation and create negative brand perceptions that can impact recruitment.

    Measuring Unconscious Bias

    The nature of unconscious bias creates a challenge when attempting to assess an individual’s biases. Years of research have led to the conclusion that self-reporting is unreliable because people are typically poor at introspection and are therefore usually unaware of their biases. In addition, self-reports are often subject to social desirability concerns—that is, individuals may modify their responses to provide more socially acceptable answers. 

    KEY POINT

    Self-reporting is an unreliable way to identify unconscious bias because people are typically poor at introspection and may report answers that are more socially acceptable.

    Researchers from several fields have developed assessments that attempt to measure unconscious bias:

    • fMRI. One avenue of exploration focuses on physiological instruments that assess neurological reactions to stimuli, such as through use of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). These studies often focus primarily on the amygdala, a part of the brain that reacts to fear and threat, which also has a known role in race-related mental processes. Findings from these studies indicate that amygdala activity can provide insights into unconscious racial associations.  
    • The Implicit Association Test. The most effective tool currently available for testing unconscious bias is the Implicit Association Test (IAT), created and maintained by Project Implicit, a consortium made up of researchers from Harvard University, the University of Virginia, and the University of Washington. Debuted by Anthony Greenwald and colleagues in 1998, the IAT measures the relative strength of associations between pairs of concepts through a series of exercises in which participants are asked to sort concepts. Millions of people in more than 20 countries have used the IAT. Researchers at these three schools, as well as others, have used the test to study many aspects of organizational and social performance, ranging from healthcare decisions to the operations of the criminal justice system.  

    KEY POINT

    The most effective tool currently available for testing and identifying unconscious bias is the Implicit Association Test (IAT). Millions of people in more than 20 countries have used the IAT.

    Conclusion

    The way candidates view your organization and its hiring practices can influence their desire to work there. For example, potential candidates may reconsider applying to an organization if they discover it has a history of bias. Identifying unconscious bias is critical if companies want to avoid the far-reaching negative impact this form of unintentional discrimination can have in the workplace. When left unchecked by an organization, unconscious bias can not only hinder innovation and creativity but also create a negative perception of the brand. Addressing unconscious bias on both the individual and company level is essential to limiting discriminatory decision-making.

    Key Takeaways

    • The latest research shows that diversity and inclusion programs have been largely ineffective in ensuring non-discriminatory workplaces.
    • To override initial snap judgments we may make about people we meet, we need to rely on thinking that is slow, deliberate, and rational.
    • Though pervasive, unconscious bias can be unlearned and replaced with new, positive mental associations.
    • Unconscious bias can lead to systemic discrimination, stifle innovation, and create negative brand perceptions that can harm recruitment efforts.
    • Self-reporting is an unreliable way to identify unconscious bias because people are generally unaware of their biases.
    • The most effective tool currently available for identifying unconscious bias in the workplace is The Implicit Association Test (IAT).

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