Outsmarting Unconscious Bias

“Have you ever seen this test before?” my friend Julie asked in an email. She’d just completed the Harvard Implicit Association Test for cultural competency training. “I am shocked at how biased my results are.” she said.

When I saw her later in the day, she told me she had thought of herself as an open-minded person and couldn’t believe the extent to which she preferred white faces over Black faces. I told her I experienced the same surprise when I had taken the test a couple of years ago. Julie and I are not alone. Co-producers of the Implicit Association Test (IAT), Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald explain in their book Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People (2013) that almost 75% of those who take the Race IAT on the internet or in laboratory studies reveal an automatic white preference. And for those who take the test and consider themselves egalitarian, the news is particularly distressing to learn that the Race IAT is a moderate predictor of racially discriminatory behavior.

Hidden Bias Defined

According to Banaji and Greenwald (2013), hidden biases are bits of knowledge about social groups. “These bits of knowledge are stored in our brains because we encounter them so frequently in our cultural environments. Once lodged in our minds, hidden biases can influence our behavior toward members of particular social groups, but we remain oblivious to their influence. Most people find it unbelievable that their behavior can be guided by mental content of which they are unaware.”

However, it is more believable when we consider researcher Daniel Kahneman’s (Thinking, Fast and Slow, 2011) explanation that there are two different ways the brain forms thoughts. He calls them System 1 and System 2 thinking. System 1 thinking is fast, automatic, frequent, judgmental, stereotypic, and subconscious. System 2 thinking is slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious and reflective. The automatic System 1 thinking, that we all experience, has been shaped by the culture around us. Being repeatedly exposed to images in movies, news media, stories, jokes, etc. within our culture reinforces the automatic stereotype on a level of which we are not even conscious. As a product of our culture, we are not always aware of how our actions are influenced by the stereotypes presented within the culture. In fact, according Uta Frith of The Royal Society (2015), prejudice and discrimination are inevitable by-products of the efficiency of the automated System 1 thinking.

Frith (2015) explains that the ability to distinguish friend from foe helped early humans survive. The ability to quickly and automatically categorize people (using System 1 thinking) according to social and other characteristics is a fundamental quality of the human mind that helps give order to life’s complexity and keep us safe. So while we cannot help putting people into categories in the first place, where our power lies is in the second place. Once we are aware that unconscious bias exists in all of us and we see someone we perceive to be threatening, we can check to make sure we’re physically and emotionally safe. And if so, we can catch the bias of System 1 thinking and instead switch over to the slower more reflective System 2 thinking, and act more intentionally and, perhaps inclusively.

Can’t Fix It, but We Can Outsmart It

In their three-minute video, The Royal Society explains we can’t fix unconscious bias, we all have it. However, with self-awareness, we can begin to outsmart it. Banaji and Greenwald (2013) explain that outsmarting unconscious bias requires:

  1. Awareness,
  2. A desire to improve, and
  3. A method for improving.

The Royal Society offers a method for improving. Frith (2015)  says there is no point in being defensive. We can never completely access our own unconscious cognitive processes, but we can achieve more fairness and improve the quality of our decision-making if we have a commitment to questioning cultural stereotypes. When preparing for a committee meeting or interview, we need to:

  • Deliberately work to slow down our decision making
  • Reconsider reasons for our decision-making
  • Question cultural stereotypes that seem truthful
  • Be open to seeing what is new and unfamiliar and increase your knowledge of other groups
  • Monitor one another for unconscious bias. We may need to call out bias when we see it.

Clearly, we can’t outsmart unconscious bias alone. To create a culture of belonging where productivity and innovation thrive, we need to take intentional steps to become aware of the assumptions that are hidden to us. We can seek to improve by putting into place an action plan that enables us to begin noticing when bias is creeping in. Then we can address unconscious bias before it undermines our intention to be inclusive and inadvertently alienates our colleagues and customers. -AN

If you’d like to implement an action plan to outsmart unconscious bias in your company or organization, email me at Amy@EmpoweringPartners.com.