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Video: Unconscious Bias
Presented by: Meghan Grubb, MA, MS
Welcome to today’s topic, unconscious bias. During today’s presentation, we will define bias, explain why our brain develops biases, define unconscious bias and its development, provide examples of unconscious bias, and then offer suggestions and resources to mitigate your own unconscious biases.
Before diving into unconscious bias, it is important for us to understand first what a bias is. Bias is a prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another that usually is considered to be unfair.
As a reminder, prejudice is a preconceived opinion that is not based on actual experience or reason. A prejudice is usually negative towards an individual based solely on the individual’s membership of a social group (https://www.simplypsychology.org/prejudice.html). For example, bullying is often caused by a prejudice against people who are different. Now, you may ask, “What is the difference between a prejudice and a bias?” Well, a prejudice is the thought that leads to a bias, which is ultimately an action. So a bias is the result of the prejudice that you have.
Although many may perceive bias as a deliberate choice rather than an unintentional predisposition, research indicates that we human beings innately perceive anyone different from us as a threat because our brain has an evolutionary requirement to do so. Our brain has to process billions of stimuli per day in a quick manner in order to tell us what is most important for us to focus on. This tactic is used for survival. Our brain has become accustomed to categorizing the stimuli we come in contact with into filing cabinets so that we may make inferences or decisions faster later on. If a bear were to come charging at you in the woods, I hope you wouldn’t have to take a moment to think about what your next move should be. Instead, instinct would take over and you would run. Well, that instinct is your brain quickly and unconsciously finding the folder labeled bear in your filing cabinet and seeing a big, red danger sign stamped across it. This example also highlights that many of our opinions and actions are developed from stimuli we are exposed to throughout our daily lives whether from our family, teachers, friends, or social media. I’m sure we’ve all seen on TV or read in a book that bears are dangerous and many people will run if ever in contact with one.
Interestingly enough, there are biases we are aware we have and then biases we are not aware that we have. Explicit bias is a conscious, controlled, and careful processing of stimuli that produces explicit beliefs and attitudes. In other words, prejudices that we have are expressed directly, we are aware of these biases such that they operate on a conscious level. On the other hand, implicit bias is when we respond to stimuli rapidly, effortlessly, and automatically by applying implicit knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, and skills. Although we express these biases, we do not know that they exist because they operate subconsciously. To clarify, implicit bias is a prejudice that turns into an action that is unconscious. Explicit bias is a prejudice we are aware we have and understand how it leads us to certain actions. Let’s look at an example to help further drive this message home. Let’s say a woman works at a warehouse and notices that her manager never asks her to do any heavy lifting. She asks the manager why this is, and he responds, “I don’t think you as a woman can lift heavy boxes so I don’t ask you to.” This is an example of an explicit bias because he is aware that his belief about women and heavy lifting led to his decision to not ask this woman to lift heavy items. If instead he responded that he was unaware he was doing this, his bias would then be considered implicit.
As mentioned earlier, biases begin to develop when we are really young as our brain starts to try and make sense of our surroundings. One study showed that unconscious biases start to develop at an early age, particularly during middle childhood, and continues to develop across childhood. Unconscious biases that we all have are influenced by our background, cultural environment, personal experiences, and education. As you can see in this picture, we have children on phones, ipads, sources of social media that are likely contributing to their own unconscious biases. We can think of children as sponges, they are soaking up everything they are learning. What ends up happening is they take in all of the information around them and start to categorize what they are hearing, seeing, and learning into filing cabinets within their brains to make sense of the world around them.
Unconscious biases often form when we notice differences between ourselves and others. We can have unconscious biases about gender, sexual orientation, race, socioeconomic status, age, and size.
We can start to see how these biases can put one group above another or make it less likely for one particular group of people to have the same opportunities as others. Ultimately, unconscious bias leads to discrimination and unfairness. So how can we as a human race learn to mitigate our own unconscious biases because as I said before we all have them even if we are not aware of them. I’ll list some individual strategies we can use for ourselves to mitigate our own unconscious biases and then I’ll jump into some institutional strategies.
The first individual strategy I highly encourage you to implement in your daily lives is to identify your own unconscious biases. This can be done by taking the Implicit Association Test, a computer-based test that measures the strength of association between classes of concepts by observing response times in categorization tasks. It was created and maintained by Project Implicit, a consortium of researchers from Harvard University, the University of Virginia, and the University of Washington. The test relies on the fact that it takes us longer to respond to two stimuli that are not part of the same category than two stimuli that are. The idea is that once you learn about your own unconscious biases, you can take steps to mitigate yourself of them.
Once you are aware of your unconscious biases, it is then useful to try and understand what led to the development of them in the first place. We know that biases come from our surroundings. Maybe a bias was formed by the TV show you watched as a kid or by a personal experience you had growing up. By understanding the nature of our biases, we might be able to now rationally argue why they hold no truth. An important way to mitigate bias is by surrounding yourself with groups who are socially dissimilar to you. By spending more time with those who are different than you, many of your unconscious biases can be disproven. Lastly, I encourage you to participate in training sessions that promote bias literacy. The more we learn about biases, the more we can combat them.
Now what can institutions do to mitigate work place unconscious biases. First, institutions can develop concrete, objective indicators and outcomes for hiring, evaluations, and promotion to reduce standard stereotypes. Secondly, institutions can develop standardized criteria to assess the impact of individual contributions in performance evaluations rather than having unfair criteria to assess groups. Thirdly, institutions can develop and utilize structured interviews and develop objective evaluation criteria for hiring. All interviewees should be asked the same questions regardless of their physical features. Lastly, institutions can provide unconscious bias training workshops for all employees to actively enforce that bias and discrimination will not be tolerated in the work place.
I hope that this presentation left you informed about unconscious bias, how unconscious biases form, and that we all have unconscious bias, so why not take the steps to mitigate them. I encourage you to explore the individual strategies that I presented today as well as sharing the institutional strategies with the schools you are a part of as well as the work places you are employed at to work towards making a more fair environment for all individuals. Lastly, here are some helpful resources to learn more about bias and to learn more about various unconscious biases. These resources also provide more steps to take to combat these biases. Thank you!