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What is unconscious bias? How to identify your hidden assumptions

What is unconscious bias? How to identify your hidden assumptions

Do you find yourself expressing opinions that are not yours, just to fit in with your friends? Or hiring people you think you'd get on with, rather than those best qualified to do the job? You may be guilty of unconscious bias.

What is unconscious bias? How to identify your hidden assumptions

In a recent interview with British GQ, Prince Harry spoke about the realisation of his unconscious bias.

“I had no idea what it was. I had no idea it existed. It took me many, many years to realise it, especially then living a day or a week in my wife’s shoes,” he admitted.

The royal went on to highlight the importance of recognising one’s own bias, saying “I think one of the most dangerous things is people within positions of power, whether it’s politics or whether it’s the media, where if you’re not aware of your own bias and you’re not aware of the culture within your system, then how are we ever going to progress?”

But what really is the psychology of unconscious bias? And how can we move past these damaging hidden assumptions?

The power of the unconscious mind

If you have ever driven back from work and had no recollection of the journey, this is your unconscious brain taking over while your conscious brain thinks about something else.

It’s estimated that the unconscious brain is able to process approximately 11 million pieces of information per second while the conscious brain is able to process about 40 pieces per second.

Due to the volume of information we process daily, our brains use unique categorisation systems to organise and reference predictable patterns to make quick assessments and not become overloaded with information.

Information is categorised with positive or negative associations of varying strengths, which we reference without being aware of how this process is guiding us, influencing our perception and informing our decisions.

Dr Robyn Moffitt, a psychology lecturer at RMIT University, Melbourne, explains that “Our implicit (sometimes referred to as non-conscious, unconscious or automatic) reaction to something is an instant reaction to any stimulus or anything in our environment (e.g. a person, a food, a smell).

This happens in milliseconds, non-consciously. Our explicit reaction is our more considered, reflective cognitive function. Explicit (conscious) reactions are slower and deliberate, and we are more aware of, and in control of these processes. Our implicit reaction can take place before the more reasoned brain processes interfere or overrule our automatic response.’’

Whether our implicit reactions are positive or negative is determined by learned associations from our childhood, culture, the media and our personal experiences. The nature of the reaction would depend on whether the experience had been positive or negative and the strength of the reaction would depend on the frequency and consistency of these experiences.

For example, frequent and consistent negative experiences with a stimulus will create a stronger negative association in our memory.

Why we seek comfort in the familiar

There is a comfort and ease in familiarity. Are your friends all a bit like you? Think like you, have similar interests, agree with your opinions, are the same age, race, sex … maybe even look a bit like you?

It’s human nature to find comfort in the familiar, but this doesn’t mean you don’t have things in common with people who you deem dissimilar to you.

Dr Jennifer Eberhardt is a professor of psychology at Stanford University and one of the world’s leading experts on racial bias. In her recent book, Biased, she writes: “Our brain categorises people as it does with everything else, thought to be from early evolution in the days when we had to survive and quickly identify a threat or enemy, friend or foe.

Affiliation is a basic human need. Categorisation also can impede our efforts to embrace and understand people who are deemed not like us, by tuning us to the faces of people who look like us and dampening our sensitivity to those who don’t.’’

There are approximately 150 different types of bias – a common one is in-group/out-group bias, which is the tendency to give preferential treatment to others perceived as members of your own group.

This can also be known as affinity bias – warming to others perceived to be like ourselves. Intergroup biases can manifest themselves in a wide variety of different groups, such as gender, age, nations, political or religious beliefs even opposing sports teams and clubs.

The psychology of stereotyping

Stereotyping can also come into play within our unconscious. If we have led our lives with little or no real exposure to contrasting groups of people such as those from different countries, or of different generations, we make assumptions based on learned stereotypes.

Think of a nation or a group of people, such as millennials or the over-60s, and you are likely to come up with two or three words or phrases that summarise that group based on stereotyping.

We all have our personal preferences, whether consciously or unconsciously. You may instantly warm to someone who has a particular accent – perhaps you had a favourite aunt or a favourite TV show with that accent and so it has positive associations for you.

Or perhaps, conversely, you recoil from someone with what you consider to be a harsh-sounding accent. In an interview situation, these preferences and associations could misguide us to overlook the best qualified, most capable person for the job.

There are some startling statistics around how strongly implicit thought and associations can lead us in our decision-making in an interview situation.

“When it comes to likeability, 93 per cent of the time you’ll hire the person you like over the person who has the better qualification and experience,’’ says Steven Asnicar, CEO of Diversity Australia, an organisation that delivers unconscious bias training and works with companies on diversity and inclusion strategies.

“When you shake someone’s hand for the first time, in recruitment terms, 76 per cent of the time you’ll hire the person whose handshake you like over the handshake you didn’t like.’’

The days of all-male executive boards smoking around the boardroom table, agreeing enthusiastically with the boss in order to get the promotion may be mostly gone. Yet, in a team situation, people may withdraw from someone whom they consider to be ‘out-group’, who may think differently to them or challenge their opinion.

“When we feel uncomfortable with someone who may challenge us, we may exclude them,” says Asnicar. “Sometimes consciously; sometimes unconsciously. We will find a reason – [known as] confirmation bias to eliminate that person out of the situation.”

Asnicar attributes diversity of thought as the key to building good executive teams, saying diversity isn’t just about race, age, gender and sexuality – it’s about diversity of thought of the person.

“Treat a person as a person and find the right person for the job every time to bring the widest possible scope of thought to create the innovation, collaboration and therefore performance to an organisation.’’

Recognising and changing negative bias

Do you continually set yourself health and fitness goals, but end up falling back into old unhealthy habits, creating a perpetual cycle that stops you reaching your goals? You have set yourself a long-term goal of getting fitter, stronger and perhaps losing a bit of weight.

You know how to do this – through exercise and healthy eating – this is our explicit brain talking. We are taught from a young age about the benefits of eating fruit and vegetables, having a balanced diet and exercising.

The problem is you may lack the motivation to get to the gym or choose a healthy alternative as a meal – this could be because your implicit reaction to exercise and healthy eating is negative.

Dr Moffitt has published research papers on the design and evaluation of psychological interventions for diet and exercise behaviour change.

“There are many ways to change a negative implicit reaction to exercise. One way is to create new associations in memory by having repeated positive experiences so that it starts being associated with fun or enjoyment. Researchers have done this using mind training, involving repeated exposure to a stimulus and repeated pairing with positive or negative stimuli to change memory associations.’’

Focus on the positive

She notes there are other approaches to try, such as using self-control strategies to overrule our automatic response and act in accordance with our longer term goals.

They include setting rewards, increasing the value of the goal by focusing on why they are important to us and increasing goal accessibility by making it more active and clear in your mind using cues or priming such as reminders.

Research has shown that body-shaming yourself with techniques like putting an unflattering picture of yourself on the fridge is ineffective, and that treating yourself with warmth and kindness about how your body looks or what it can physically do has better results.

“There is evidence to suggest that if we view our bodies positively and be kind to ourselves we actually want to be healthier and are more likely to sustain a healthy lifestyle if that is our goal.’’

Moffitt says that if you can do this consistently for about six months, it is more likely to become habitual and you are less likely to fall back into old ways.

Implicit associations and explicit thoughts aren’t always conflicting, with one negative and one positive. Some people’s explicit and implicit thoughts match up.

But how can we begin to counteract our unconscious associations if they conflict with our conscious thoughts and are holding us back or negatively affecting our perceptions and understanding of others?

Awareness is crucial

Clinical psychologist and resident psychologist on TVNZ’s Breakfast, Jacqui Maguire, says it’s ineffective for people to try and stop the brain generating thoughts, but we can become more aware of them.

“Start to stop and spot when your brain generates them so you can choose how you respond and how you behave. That’s when it becomes conscious. If you have an intention of treating people fairly and justly, then you will learn through practice – spotting those unconscious thoughts and respondingin a way that aligns with your values of treating people fairly and equally.’’

Project Implicit on Stanford University’s website provides an online Implicit Association Test that you can access to discover if you hold implicit bias on a number of different topics such as exercise, weight, anxiety, mental illness and race.

A life-long project

What is certain is there is no quickfix. This is a continuous, effortful process of slowing down your thoughts, interrupting your usual routine and making an effort to learn, grow and change if that is your desire.

“Interrupt your normal daily processby thinking about what you are doing, as opposed to doing the whole routine. Take the time to connect to people, get people to share their stories,” suggests Asnicar.

In a business environment, you can improve systems and approaches to be more conscious in situations such as meetings and interviews by adopting frameworks and providing staff training in order to minimise the impact of associations and assumptions when we make decisions.

Dr Eberhardt references research that shows the brain is not hardwired, but malleable, and therefore capable of change.

“Neither our evolutionary path nor our present culture dooms us to be held hostage by bias. Change requires a kind of open-minded attention that is well within our reach, whether we are trying to change ourselves or the settings where we live, work and learn.”

7 common types of implicit bias

Within a possible 150 different types of bias, the common ones are:

  • In-group/out-group. The tendency to give preferential treatment to those perceived as members of one’s own group (may also be known as affinity bias – warming to those perceived to be like ourselves).
  • Confirmation bias. The tendency to seek out and remember information that supports one’s initial impressions.
  • Halo effect. The tendency to think everything about a person is good (or bad) because you like (or dislike) that person.
  • Stereotyping. The tendency to expect that because someone belongs to a group they have certain characteristics.
  • Status-quo. The tendency to like things to stay the same without too much disruption.
  • Group attribution. The tendency to attribute one individual’s characteristics as reflecting the characteristics of the group.
  • Group think. When people try to fit in by mimicking or holding back thoughts and opinions, causing organisations to lose out on creativity and innovation.
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