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What is Unconscious Bias?
The Basics

What is Unconscious Bias?

The Basics is a series that breaks down the essential questions of purposeful business.

3 minute read

29th Jun 2021

What is it?

Unconscious biases (also called implicit biases) are learned stereotypes that prompt the brain to make rapid assumptions about people, often without us even realising these judgements are being made. 

There are various examples of unconscious bias, including biases relating to race, gender, and sexuality. 

Culture, media, and upbringing can contribute to the development of these biases.

Unconscious bias can manifest in groups, organisations and systems, with negative consequences for those subject to such bias. It can lead to unfair treatment, microagressions and discrimination. 

How has our understanding of it evolved?

Beginning in the 1970s, microcomputers made it possible to measure mental computations in milliseconds, enabling psychologists to study unconscious cognition. 

The term implicit bias was first used in 1995, by psychologists Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald. They argued that social behavior is largely influenced by unconscious associations and judgments.

In 1998, Banaji and Greenwald teamed with psychology professor Brian Nosek to create the Implicit Association Test (IAT). Utilising a computer program, the IAT asks participants to categorise words or images that appear on screen, by pressing specific keys. The time it takes for the respondent to choose is thought to uncover the mental associations we are not even aware of, but underlie discriminatory decisions and actions.

While the accuracy of the test has been questioned, it has nonetheless been influential in the development of “unconscious bias training”.

There has since been a multitude of studies, revealing how unconscious bias discriminates against different groups.

Notable examples include a study revealing that resumes with white-sounding names received 50% more callbacks for interviews (Bertrand & Mullainathan, 2004) and another conducted at Yale (2012), illuminating science faculty members’ gender biases favoring male students, resulting in a drastic disparity between the number of women receiving Ph.D.’s and those hired as junior faculty.

What can we do about it?

The first step in overcoming the negative consequences of unconscious biases is recognising that we all have them. If we don’t acknowledge this, we can’t fight it.

Research shows that learning about cognitive biases can help us overcome them. Understanding what unconscious biases are, how they arise, and their potential to influence one’s own decisions and actions, is vital.

Education can take place in the form of training programs, and facilitated discussions, particularly with those from socially dissimilar groups. Surrounding yourself with people from different cultural and academic backgrounds will help you develop better understanding.