When you hear the words “unconscious bias”, do you automatically think of racism and sexism? Many people do, and it causes a lot of people to become defensive and want to deny that they have any “biases” at all. The truth is, though, that unconscious bias doesn’t make you a prejudiced person, and the assumptions that we make about people are just one part of how your brain has been programmed to operate on this kind of autopilot.
Unconscious bias is your brain’s default response mode. Back when human beings were still figuring out how to use tools and hiding from sabretooth tigers, we needed to make some pretty quick decisions. There wasn’t time to get to know another person before judging them or creatively brainstorming hut-building strategies – snap decisions about who you could trust not to bash you over the head and where to find shelter were literally matters of life and death.
Whilst our lives and communities have evolved considerably since then, our brains haven’t. Your mind is still using the same operating system, which includes programming to enable instant decisions and facilitate repeat activities without thought. Sometimes it might involve making assumptions about people, but a lot of the time it’s about your own actions and behaviours. It makes things a lot quicker, but it’s not actually all that helpful.
Here are a few examples of how unconscious bias is taking your brain on automatic, and sometimes destructive, paths.
Why do you end up messing around on Twitter instead of reading that big research report, or spend two hours playing with the design of a document instead of actually writing it? It’s because your brain is programmed to prefer quick rewards to long-term effort. You get an immediate hit of dopamine from Twitter, whereas it will take a lot longer to get a pay-off from actually doing the big piece of work. So your unconscious bias leads you to do the short task and put off the large one. Training yourself to focus on the longer-term reward is a complex effort in itself – but not one you should put off!
If you’re trying to learn more about a particular issue, you might think that you’re conducting in-depth research by reading information or talking to others, but confirmation bias means you’re likely to be only focusing on the elements that support the initial assumption you started with. However much you think you’re looking into the different arguments, unless you keep your confirmation bias in check, your brain will cherry-pick the points that back up its belief, seek out supporting sources and disregard or find ways to discredit opposing evidence. When you’re considering any complex question, pay attention to your gut reaction, and give careful consideration to information you find yourself automatically disagreeing with to make sure you really are weighing up both sides.
Ever wondered why the same person keeps being invited to speak at an event, even though they weren’t that great at the last eight, or why the same person keeps being elected to a certain position even though their results have been dubious? It’s called familiarity preference – the fact that someone has done a job before means we automatically assume they are more trustworthy to do it again. Whether it’s a keynote speaker or a government, we’re more inclined to choose people or groups who have done something repeatedly, even if they didn’t do it that well, because it feels safer than an untested alternative. This is also why organisations fall back on the “this is the way we’ve always done it” approach, rather than embracing new, more effective ways of doing things.
Back when we were trying to work out who was going to hit us over the head and steal our berries and who might help us build that hut we needed, we felt safer staying close to people who reminded us of ourselves. Not much has changed. We’re still hardwired to prefer people who share our characteristics, lifestyles and opinions, even though it might be far more productive for us to work with someone who will bring a different perspective and opinion to the table.
While it sounds fancy, regency bias is simply our brain’s tendency to focus on the most recent event or interaction when evaluating something. If a person or organisation does something really wonderful or really terrible right before we have to make a decision about it, we’ll focus on that rather than assessing the accumulation of all experiences we’ve had.
Sunk cost bias
One of our brain’s most damaging forms of unconscious bias is the unwillingness to walk away from something we’ve invested in. Whether it’s time, money, energy or emotion, if we’ve already committed to something, we feel the need to keep going and not let it go, even when it’s damaging or costly. So we continue to invest, and then having invested more we’re more unwilling to walk away. Learning to cut our losses and call an end to something before it drains us even further, accepting that what we’ve already wasted is gone, requires real strength.
Also known as conformity bias, we’ve all experienced the need to fit in with the group around us. Again, back to the days of early humans, our survival depended on being part of the tribe – if we were excluded, we would actually die. So we needed to fit in and make everyone want to keep us around. That’s why we find ourselves saying things we don’t truly agree with and agreeing to do things we don’t really want to do when we’re in a group – we’re trying to keep in with our tribe. Beware of making decisions in a group where people are likely to agree with the dominant opinion for fear of being left out in the woods with the sabretooth tigers – metaphorically speaking.
So when we talk about unconscious bias, we’re not talking about subconscious racism or sexism, although that can be an inadvertent result. These thought patterns are deeply ingrained into ALL of us, and we can all benefit from learning to overcome them.
If you want to learn more about releasing your brain from the ineffective autopilot of unconscious bias, check out our Challenge Your Assumptions training.