The topic of unconscious bias seems to be prevalent at the moment. Articles keep popping into my inbox and my web searches. Social scientists would no doubt tell me this is something that has been talked about for years, but it is news to me and seems to be trending.
The concept of unconscious bias is something I felt myself doing, felt myself on the wrong end of and see in others but I had no idea there was a name for it until recently.
So what is unconscious bias?
Psychologists tell us that our unconscious biases are our natural people preferences. We are hard-wired to prefer people who look like us, sound like us and who we share common ground with.
It is sometimes referred to as ‘social categorisation’. This is where we regularly and quickly sort people into groups. This extends beyond our normal, rational and logical thinking as the categories we sometimes use to group people are not always logical, modern or sometimes even legal
Neuro-psychologists tell us this is built into the very structure of the brain’s neurons. Our unconscious brain processes and sifts vast amounts of information looking for patterns (200,000 times more information than the conscious mind). When the unconscious brain sees two things occurring together such as many female receptionists it begins to expect them to be seen together and subsequently wires them together neurally.
That’s the science bit over! I don’t profess to fully understand that side of things but I can relate to it when it is put in practical terms. This is my interpretation.
No one is completely non-judgemental, so that means we all can be prejudiced. Yesterday the British Social Attitudes Survey published research that says a third of people in the UK would consider themselves racially prejudiced. I find this an interesting stat. If unconscious bias is true of all of us then surely 100% of us can be racially prejudiced? Does this mean that a third of those questioned were honest enough to admit this and are particularly self-aware, or do they feel a deeper, more conscious, sense of prejudice?
The prejudices I am referring to in this blog post are outside our awareness, so ironically anyone who says they are never prejudiced are demonstrating what I am talking about! These kind of prejudices lend themselves to being denied because they are unconscious.
I like to believe I am not prejudiced, in fact I don’t even like to associate myself with the word. However, if I am totally honest I know I can occasionally stereotype people and make first impressions that are unfair, which could be described as prejudices. I like to think I catch myself doing it before they have a negative impact. Perhaps 100% of us can be racially prejudiced, but only a third of us consider this to be in a negative way?
I will cite a couple of recent examples when I feel my default setting was to stereotype.
I was delivering some training in an external venue and I asked for some technical support to set up my equipment. On just about every previous occasion a youngish, white male appears to help me out. On this occasion an eastern European woman appeared and I confess I did not think she was the technical support! It shocked me that my assumption was that she would not be working in this role. What was worse was that I was more inclined to think she was part of the catering team who had just delivered the teas and coffees.
My stereotyping took seconds before my thinking did a complete u-turn and I did not doubt her ability at all. I thought about it later and decided that I was not discriminating, believe me I am always pleased to see anyone from technical support when I am struggling to get projectors and laptops talking to one another! The reason I was taken aback was because so often the same type of people are employed within this role which perpetuates the stereotype I was expecting.
Ironically, I was delivering equality training recently, and one participant stood out from everyone who attended my sessions. He championed equality issues within his organisation and the community surrounding it at every level. He was a white guy in his late fifties who worked in accounts. My co-trainer, our client and I commented that he was possibly the least likely person to champion this stuff so passionately and with conviction. Why did we think this? Surely, we were stereotyping who we thought an equality champion would be or assumed someone like him (whatever that means) would not be so interested in equality and inclusion.
In these two examples the consequences of my unconscious bias did not result in discrimination, but I can see how it might have done in another situation. What if I had been on the interview panel that appointed the person for that technical support role? What if I neglected to pass on an opportunity to the older male in accounts because I assumed he would not be interested or suitable?
Perhaps accepting we all have unconscious biases would go some way to reducing biases that lead to stereotyping? Studies show people can be consciously committed to egalitarianism, and deliberately work to behave without prejudice, yet still possess hidden negative prejudices or stereotypes.
The second way is to strive to be self-aware of typical generalisations you may hold or situations when you are likely to be more unconsciously bias. It seems we all use stereotypes as short-hand to make generalisations. But if we train ourselves to quickly question what grounds we are basing our generalisations on then they are less likely to lead to discrimination.
Seems anyone who tells you they don’t make generalisations are being unconsciously dishonest!