Navigating Unconscious Bias

What is “unconscious bias” and is it a problem?

Have you heard of the Baby James/Baby Jane experiment? Dress a baby in blue and call ‘him’ James. Let someone look after ‘him’ and they tend to encourage activity in the baby, playing with noisier ‘boy’s toys’.

Dress the same baby in pink and call ‘her’ Jane… the carer tends to encourage quieter play with the ‘girl’s toys’. In the carer’s role, most of us (without some training/awareness) would do the same.

Let’s start with a definition or two. “Bias” from a psychological perspective is a learnt unconscious ‘behaviour’ which is linked to our values, beliefs and opinions. We develop our bias either directly through experience or indirectly through conditioning. The unconscious part of it simply means it is a mental process or pattern that we have but we are unaware of it.

Is unconscious bias a problem? Our bias causes us to ‘put someone in a box’, to label them in some way. Bias can be positive towards someone else or negative against them. I have also heard this called the ‘halos and horns effect’ (where we assess some folk as angelic and demonise the others). But, if we see people in a positive light, does that not create a better world? In part yes, but for this to work fully, we would need to see ALL other people in a positive light, no matter their qualities, characteristics and background. We would need to value all human beings equally in whoever they are or whatever they do.

The problem arises because (as human beings ourselves) we have to have a ‘them’. In order to understand ‘who WE are’, we need to know ‘who we are NOT’. We will always have a ‘them’… ‘those people’. Interestingly though, we can still have a negative bias towards our own group… because we may have been taught that there is someone else who is better, cleverer, more powerful etc. This ‘sorting process’ is a fundamental psychological function which begins very early in life (whether we are baby Jane or baby James).

To have positive and negative bias is to be human. The trick is to recognise it and make it ‘conscious’. Then we can make a more informed choice as to how we assess others.

Why are we bias?

I was amazed years ago when a smart guy I know said he felt intimidated by me because of my intelligence. Let me start this by saying that all the way through school, I got average (or below) marks. I got four A-levels (three Cs and a D). I got a degree (2:2). In my mind, I was the archetypal ‘Average Joe’. So here was someone who believed that I was cleverer than him. And how did this happen? Turns out, it was because I wore glasses (being rather short-sighted!) This encounter changed me in two ways… firstly I became aware of the subtleties and nuances of unconscious bias… and from that day, I decided to be cleverer (and later gained an MSc with a distinction – hoorah!)

Our unconscious bias is a filter through which we experience reality. It affects our perception of e.g. our self, others, ideas, places and things. As human beings, we cannot help but be biased because we all have filters! The ‘danger’ of bias is not only that it affects how we assess and treat others, but also in how we create a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’.

The ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ (a term coined by Robert Merton back in 1948… see that’s me just being cleverer!) is where our beliefs affect our behaviours which in turn support our original belief. We might seek confirmation of our ‘intuition’ or initial assessment of someone. We see/meet another person, stick them in a box and then seek evidence that fits our picture of them in that box. We also ignore any counter evidence, either blanking it (not noticing it) or distorting it (explain it away as an anomaly).

Ellen Langer, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University has done some fascinating research about first impressions. When we meet someone, we make an assessment (are they like me? do I like them? are they friend or foe?). We then look for cues and clues that fit that first impression. Not only do we judge the book by its cover (actually the cover we think we’ve seen), we then try and re-write the book to match the perceived cover.

Our first impressions also determine things like: Do I trust this person? How confident are they? How competent are they? Again… in the box they go!

If you are ever interviewing another person, beware of first impression and the self-fulfilling prophecy. Challenge yourself. If you get a ‘gut feeling’ about someone, ask yourself: what is the difference between ‘intuition’ and ‘prejudice’?

Interested in learning more about unconscious bias? Attend Joe Cheal's upcoming session at the NLP International Conference on Saturday 18th May 2019.