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Impacts of Unconscious Bias Matter

by Harwant Khush, Ph.D., Research Consultant, Tero International


"To know the true reality of yourself, you must be aware not only of your conscious thoughts but also of your unconscious prejudices, bias, and habits." -Anonymous

Expressing unconscious biases by openly expressing opinions and being judgmental about other peoples' behavior and actions has become a pervasive phenomenon in contemporary societies. Not a day goes by when we do not hear or read about people unfairly assessed on their biological inheritance, religion, ethnic beliefs, sexual orientation, weight, and other such characteristics.

To a great extent, being biased is a fundamental characteristic of human behavior. However, taking these biases to the extreme leads to many negative consequences. Expressing views based solely on one's perceptions without the relevant facts builds prejudices, perpetuates disparity, and is eventually detrimental to the effectiveness of individuals and society. Therefore, it is vital to understand how and why biases are formed and how to mitigate their adverse effects.

Bias is popularly defined as "...a prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another usually in a way that's considered to be unfair. Biases may be held by an individual, group, or institution and can have negative or positive consequences." (Bias) To understand unconscious bias, it is necessary to know how it differs from conscious bias.

Conscious Bias also known as explicit bias is when "...individuals are aware of their prejudices and attitudes toward certain groups. Positive or negative preferences for a particular group are conscious." (Conscious bias) Individuals admit their likes and dislikes and are not concerned about voicing their opinion.

Unconscious Bias is a contemporary term for implicit bias based on the Implicit Social Cognition theory formulated by Banaji and Greenwald. These authors state that "...individual's social behavior and biases are largely related to unconscious or implicit judgments." Individuals may be unaware of when and how their actions and conduct are influenced by unconscious factors.

The Higher Education Council defines unconscious as:

"...a bias that we are unaware of, and which happens outside of our control. It is a bias that happens automatically and is triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment, and personal experiences. (Higher Education)

These stereotypes and blind spots are buried deep in the subconscious mind and are beyond our conscious awareness and control. This imprinting impacts one's actions and beliefs. For example, to fix computers, we may consider male technicians to be much more tech-savvy as compared to women technicians.


VITAL CHARACTERISTICS OF UNCONSCIOUS BIAS


TYPES OF UNCONSCIOUS BIAS

Social psychologists have provided multiple lists to identify the number and type of unconscious biases. The most common are:


EFFECTS OF UNCONSCIOUS BIAS

Unconscious biases occur at the workplace including in selection and retention of employees, providing health services, and other similar situations. Discrimination and social stereotypes are a way of life. Research studies have documented specific effects. These include:

Gender Bias in Selection of Candidates for Jobs: Researcher Moss-Racusin created a fictitious resume for a lab manager's position, identifying half of the resumes with a male applicant's name "John" and the other half with a female applicant's name "Jennifer." Science faculty were asked to evaluate the candidates. Scientists significantly favored the male applicant "John" and also rated him as more competent, capable and deserving of higher salary as compared to "Jennifer" the female candidate (Stanford.edu).

Unconscious Biases affecting African Americans in Federal Jobs: The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC-2013) evaluated the prospects for African Americans in the federal workforce. It concluded, "Unconscious biases and perceptions about African Americans still play a significant role in employment decisions in the federal sector."

Unconscious Bias among Physicians: The Journal of General Internal Medicine reports that "physicians' unconscious biases may contribute to racial/ethnic disparities in use of medical procedures..." Another similar study from the Journal of Public Health concludes: "...most health care providers appear to have an implicit bias in terms of positive attitudes toward Whites, and negative attitudes toward people of color."

Foreign Sounding names and qualifications are documented by researchers in Sweden as factors that significantly reduce the chance of being called for a job interview (Foreign Names). A similar study was conducted by a Harvard-based Social Psychologist (Forbes). She was invited for all interviews when she had used her husband's last name (Anglo-Saxon), while only from 1 place when she had used her original foreign maiden name.

Multiple studies have documented the results that corporations still consider that men make better leaders than women; they therefore need higher salaries, more perks and benefits. These and other such studies show that unconscious biases are pervasive. At one time or another, we are all victims of these prejudices.


HOW TO MINIMIZE UNCONSCIOUS BIAS?


"I think unconscious bias is one of the hardest things to get at." (Ruth Bader Ginsburg)

Structural Changes

Interventions to eliminate biases should be relevant to the situation and needs of people. An article in the Harvard Business Review provides three suggestions to minimize unconscious biases.

  1. Priming: Be aware of how one's previous experiences and memories act as filters to make current decisions. For example, in reviewing resumes, managers should ask themselves these questions:
  2. "Does this person's resume remind me in any way about myself?"

    "Does it remind me of somebody I know? Is that positive or negative?"

  3. Reorganizing Structures and Systems: Formulate standard policies and procedures to minimize subjective interpretation of factual information. For example, in recruiting employees, the interview process, time, questions asked, etc. should be the same for all candidates.
  4. Accountability: Any person suspected of acting on bias should be asked to explain their actions and behavior. For example, if an HR manager has not hired any persons of different ethnicities or color for the last few selection processes, the manager should be asked to justify this decision.

Behavioral Changes

Diversity Council has recommended some of these behavioral changes for individuals:


Training Programs for Organizations

Organizations should conduct multiple training programs to generate awareness and to minimize the pervasiveness of biases. Prevalence of preferences can be checked by administering standardized tests or by tests specifically developed by the organizations for their training programs.

The Implicit Association Test, a standardized test developed in 1998 assesses the prevalence of biases in organizations. Results can be used to formulate when, how, and what kind of training should be implemented to lessen negative impacts.

A few well-known corporations have developed tests based on their specific needs. Facebook has produced multiple training videos that can be freely accessed by its employees. Google has trained a significant portion of their employees in unbiased training. United States Department of Justice has trained its employees on techniques to combat implicit bias.

These efforts show how people and organizations can make efforts to minimize biases.


Conclusion

"Stupidity and Unconscious bias often work more damage than venality." (Bertrand Russell)

Human beings will always have preconceived notions about others with whom they may come in contact. People feel comfortable and get a sense of security by belonging to groups that they are familiar with and that share the same background. Problems arise when these homogenous groups become suspicious of or biased against people with different backgrounds, races, or ethnicities. Negative ideas get accentuated due to one's insecurities, limited resources, and by fear of the unknown.

Taken to a great extent, these negative behaviors and actions can be detrimental to societies. Stereotypes and prejudices do not serve any purpose, but lead instead to a culture of distrust and hate that denies equal opportunities to all. These impacts can be minimized by the actions and trainings outlined above. Development and preservation of societies and civilization depend on coming together for a common purpose rather than by divisions due to unconscious biases.

(This article was inspired by Prince Harry's remarks on unconscious biases printed in several news sources including BBC.com. I thank him for his excellent insights.)

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