Unconscious Bias – what do we understand?

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. 

About equalityedge

I run Equality Edge and its unique and creative "Working with Difference" project. It supports employers and managers in gaining a competitive and cost saving advantage from meeting equality and diversity best practice obligations. Coaching and workshops are used to deliver organisational, team and leadership development, assisting in improving communication and the understanding of the impact difference has on workplace behaviour.
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11 Responses to Unconscious Bias – what do we understand?

  1. Thanks for this, an interesting piece, butMichael, I’m unclear what you mean by your reference to David Cameron. The man has both conscious and unconscious bias in favour of women, and the small number of women in the cabinet is simply a reflection of the low numbers of suitable women. The appointment of JUstine Greening, the disastrous minister responsible for the West Coast Line fiasco, is instructive.
    In ‘The Glass Ceiling Delusion’ I have a short piece about a newspaper article just before the 2010 general election, Daily Telegraph jpurnalist Mick Brown was accompanying Cameron around the West Country. They visited a female-owned and run garage, and Mick Brown made a remark about the gender balance of Cameron’s entourage. Cameron replied, ‘As you can see, we’re an all-women team. I don’t employ a man if I can possibly help it.’
    How would women feel if a potemtial PM said, ‘As you can see, we’re an all-men team. I don;t employ a woman if I can possibly help it.’

  2. equalityedge says:

    In an earlier blog I related to David Cameron’s sexist comment he made in PMQ’s for which he later apologised. He acknowledged on the Andrew Marr show in BBC TV that “things just slip out” when you’re under pressure. This is what Pete Jones describes “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”. In other words, when under pressure we revert to type.

    • Michael, many thanks for the explanation. I don’t think Cameron was reverting to type unless it was CLASS type. It was neither funny nor sexist, although of course it’s presented as the latter by the feminists. His outburst was simply a rare example of him getting fed up with nonsense being spoken by the dour feminists opposite. Didn;t he address the remark to one of the awful whining Eagle sisters? I can never tell them apart. For once I have sympathy with Cameron. Exposure to the Eagles would surely drive any sane person crazy.

      You may or may not have noticed how little flak Cameron gets from Harriet Harman – indeed she often smiles fondly at him. Possibly because they’re kindred spirits, as I pointed out in ‘David and Goliatha: David Cameron – heir to Harman?’ The cover hopefully captures their relationship accurately:

      Doesn’t the anecdote from the West Country show he’s sexist, but in an anti-male manner? Why is anti-male sexism acceptable – to the point that a prospective PM boasts of it – while anti-female sexism remains (quite rightly) unacceptable? We see echoes of this in the term often used about senior business people, that they’re ‘male, pale and stale’, neatly combining sexism, racism and ageism in just four words.

      But the ‘reverting to type’ point is well taken. Didn’t Cameron refer to Ed Balls in PMQs as a ‘babbling idtiot’? Which, to be fair, was both accurate and funny – a rare combo for Dave.

      Busy times here at the Anti-Feminism League and Campaign for Merit n Business, so must dash. Preparing for a discussion tomorrow morning on BBC Radio Sussex / Surrey, ‘Is feminism necessary anymore?’ As Homer Simpson might say, ‘Duh!’

      Mike Buchanan

  3. Fred says:

    Hello Michael

    Hope you are keeping well.

    I must be the only person on earth who did not consider Mr Camerons comment sexist. It appeared to me to be “manufactured offense” which is the hallmark of the warped and infantile feminist mindset merely becuase the target was a women. Most men would have laughed at the Prime Minister and retorted accordingly or ignored him. You do not mention the chronic bias against men and boys that governments via feminist lobbying have inflicted on them and continues to this day. It seems odd to me that women can insult , discriminate, humiliate, put down men or boys at whim but that is deemed to be ok….why?. There is something wrong with a society that has an in built bias towards men and boys and allows women to get away with crass and bias behaviours on a daily basis for the past forty years.

  4. Bias is also a learned behavior. Young children see the differences in color but they do not attach a value to such observation until they’re taught such values. Our bias towards money is not innate either. I guess when we can think young enough we don’t care what’s in your diaper. 🙂

  5. Fred says:

    Dear Vanderpoel, Not sure what you are trying to say with this however I am on my 5th glass of Dom Perignon so please excuse my lack of understanding and perception!!.

  6. Albert Wright the Contrarian says:

    I’m on water and still feel a bit lost.
    How do you know if your unconscious bias is a good or bad thing?
    Thank goodness people think differently – isn’t this the basis of diversity?

    Is the answer to avoid extremism?

    • equalityedge says:

      I don’t think you should be thinking in terms of good or bad; your unconscious bias just is. What is important is that you are aware of it, recognise the potential for it to affect your behaviour and responses and, wherever possible, keep any negative impact to a minimum. I believe that the more time you spend exploring your socialised learning that Dr Jones suggests come from “…friends and family, by the media and by our life experiences..”, the more you will understand and be able to control them.

      Yes, thinking and acting differently is one of the fundamental aspects of diversity and part of what makes the human race so special. However, an aspect of that same diversity is that some people think and behave in a discriminatory way, which I am sure you will agree is not so good! That is why we do the work we do, to try to make change.

  7. Of course people think and behave in a discriminatory way – that’s how they work. We discriminate over what we think is good or bad to eat as well as who is a good or bad person.

    Vanderpoel is only pointing out that we create most of these distinctions as we grow up. We hard wire our good / bad decision making process based on our personal experiences as well as what we have been “taught” by trusted authorities.

    Even though at the start of your comment you say “I don’t think you should be thinking in terms of good or bad” You finish by saying “I am sure you will agree is not so good!” Saying that this isn’t good is actually an example of your own unconscious bias! Our minds constantly scan our environment and determine whether it s good or bad; am I safe or in danger. So it’s all about good or bad.

    For sure, some people will have inaccurate representations, but they will have them for a reason. What worries me is that some so called diversity training presents lots of negative stereotypes that people didn’t have before they went on the training! I believe this is what Pete means in his last paragraph.

  8. Interesting article.

    I think it is important to differentiate unconscious bias from hidden prejudice which may seem to be the same in behaviour and I often find difficult to differentiate. Before I .became active in equality work I was a marketing professional and unconscious bias has always been a challenge in marketing. Supermarkets have had to work really hard to change brand preferences from the established brands to the own brand products. The differentiation was price, but despite that customers perceived the own brands to be inferior.and many people still do. Further own brands were associated by some with lower status people – and buying them sends a signal about their own financial status,

    I worked in one company in the 80’s where Japanese cars were not allowed as company cars despite the price advantage. Arguments were put forward about quality being poor despite growing evidence to the contrary. Then someone was allowed to have a Rover car that had been manufactured by Honda. eventually we learned the truth – the CEO’s father had been a prisoner of war in Japan and he harbored intense prejudice against anything Japanese.

    Research by British film maker Anthony Thomas provides a clear link between homophobic behaviour and suppressed homosexuality, yet most people tested denied any homosexual feelings which was evidenced by the test.

  9. Pingback: Unconscious Bias - GrayMatterUK

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