We are all noticing, I am sure, an increase in the use of the term ‘unconscious bias’ in our diversity work and I am seeing circumstances of its misuse and misunderstanding. On several occasions recently I have been asked about unconscious bias and its impact on our behaviour, but I am no expert, so I deciding to invite Dr Pete Jones, who is an expert, to share a little of his knowledge with us. He agreed to guest blog for Equality Edge and has written this explanation.
Put simply, unconscious biases are our unintentional and automatic people preferences. We ALL have them. We are ALL inclined to prefer people who look like ourselves, sound like ourselves or seem to share our values or beliefs. These preferences lead ALL of us to favour some people over others in the way we behave. These preferences often bypass our self awareness because they operate automatically and without our conscious intention, and because we all have a bias blind spot where we can see bias in others but not in ourselves.
Our unconscious biases arise partly because of the way we are socialised by friends and family, by the media and by our life experiences. They are created and maintained by the way our brains are wired to rapidly sort or categorise others for quick and efficient decision making. If we couldn’t quickly sort and categorise people our lives would be very complex, requiring a detailed judgement of every new person. We develop ‘short-cuts’ for judging people because they are so useful and efficient for our thinking; they are identified by unconscious pattern matching in the brain. Our brain notices when things occur together (e.g. certain groups of people in certain types of jobs) and it develops associations between the two so that when we think about one, we automatically activate unconscious thoughts about the other which drive our decision making. Matches can be made based solely on a stereotype, so we don’t have to believe a stereotype for it to affect our behaviour, we just have to know about it (consciously or unconsciously).
Luckily we have developed a natural bias defence mechanism preventing instinctive reactions to people who are different from becoming negative behaviour. Control of unconscious bias depends upon having sufficient resources in the brain’s clever but limited pre-frontal cortex. However, those resources are also required to regulate our other emotions and perform complex cognitive tasks such as problem solving. When we overwhelm these limited resources with emotional demands (such as frustration, stress or anger) or simply exhaust them and, with over use, our brain falls back on to the less demanding processes of the unconscious and the patterns it has observed.
Explanations of unconscious bias resonate with many senior managers. It passes the ‘elevator test’ of simple explanation in 2 minutes. But there are dangers in using unconscious bias as an organisational intervention without a full understanding of the phenomenon. The ‘hard wired’ processes which underpin unconscious bias have defence mechanisms and some unpleasant surprises for the unwary.
Firstly, trying to intervene with people who don’t have strong unconscious biases (for example through a mandatory programme) can trigger bias because we drag into the conscious something which their unconscious already has a grip on, and the unconscious has 20,000 times the power of the conscious. Secondly, there is a danger of triggering the neural pathways of the stereotypes which underpin bias, which even if done subtly can impact behaviour. Finally, most people don’t need intervention. Around 70% of people will not have biases affecting their behaviour towards a particular group (although almost all people have active biases against at least one group). Without bias testing we don’t know who needs intervention and who needs to be left well alone.
I am really appreciative Pete for his concise explanation. Reading it, it makes sense of why people I have previously written about, behaved the way they did (e.g. David Cameron and John Terry). If you want to know more about his work, you can see check out Pete’s LinkedIn profile for details.