By Harwant Khush, PhD | Research and intercultural consultant, Tero International Inc.

"To know the true reality of yourself, you must be aware not only of your conscious thoughts but also of your unconscious prejudices, bias and habits." --Anonymous

Expressing unconscious biases by openly expressing opinions and being judgmental about other peoples’ behavior and actions has become a pervasive phenomenon in contemporary societies. Not a day goes by when we do not hear or read about people unfairly assessed on their biological inheritance, religion, ethnic beliefs, sexual orientation, weight and other such characteristics.

TYPES OF UNCONSCIOUS BIAS

Social psychologists have provided multiple lists to identify the number and type of unconscious biases. The most common:

  • Confirmation bias is the tendency to believe and interpret information in a way that confirms one’s existing beliefs and ideas. For example, a person’s belief in the excellence of their organization will be reinforced each time some employees from that organization win awards.
  • Attribution bias is when we attribute the behavior of other people to something personal about them rather than do something about their situation. For example, if a driver cuts in front, we may say that the driver is crazy without realizing that the driver may be in a rush because of an emergency.
  • Affinity bias is the tendency to like and develop relationships with people who look like oneself or have a similar background. This bias is also known as "love for the same."
  • Halo effect. If you like a specific quality about a person, the tendency is to believe that everything else is also virtuous about that person. It is how teenagers become fans of rock stars and movie personalities.
  • Perception bias is judging others based on one’s stereotypes and beliefs and not through objective facts and data. This bias is highly prevalent in the workplace as people tend to label other workers as slow and lazy, or smart and creative.
  • Group bias is copying the behavior, ways and actions of group members for the sole purpose of belonging to those groups. This bias is highly prevalent among teenagers as they try to talk and dress like their friends and classmates.


EFFECTS OF UNCONSCIOUS BIAS

Unconscious biases occur at the workplace, including in selection and retention of employees, providing health services, and other similar situations. Discrimination and social stereotypes are a way of life. Research studies have documented specific effects. These include:

  • Gender bias in selection of job candidates: Researcher Moss-Racusin created a fictitious resume for a lab manager’s position, identifying half of the resumes with a male applicant’s name "John" and the other half with a female applicant’s name "Jennifer." Science faculty were asked to evaluate the candidates. Scientists significantly favored the male applicant "John" and also rated him as more competent, capable and deserving of higher salary as compared with "Jennifer" the female candidate.
 
  • Unconscious biases affecting African Americans in federal jobs: The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission evaluated the prospects for African Americans in the federal workforce. It concluded, "Unconscious biases and perceptions about African Americans still play a significant role in employment decisions in the federal sector."
 
  • Unconscious bias among physicians: The Journal of General Internal Medicine reports that "physicians’ unconscious biases may contribute to racial/ethnic disparities in use of medical procedures." A similar study from the Journal of Public Health concludes that "most health care providers appear to have an implicit bias in terms of positive attitudes toward Whites, and negative attitudes toward people of color."
 
  • Foreign-sounding names and qualifications are documented by researchers in Sweden as factors that significantly reduce the chance of being called for a job interview. A similar study was conducted by a Harvard-based social psychologist. She was invited for all interviews when she had used her husband’s last name (Anglo-Saxon), while only from one place when she had used her original foreign maiden name.

Multiple studies have documented the results that corporations still consider that men make better leaders than women; they therefore need higher salaries, more perks and benefits. These and other such studies show that unconscious biases are pervasive. At one time or another, we are all victims of these prejudices.

HOW TO MINIMIZE UNCONSCIOUS BIAS

"I think unconscious bias is one of the hardest things to get at." --Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Interventions to eliminate biases should be relevant to the situation and needs of people. An article in the Harvard Business Review provides three suggestions to minimize unconscious biases.

Priming: Be aware of how one’s previous experiences and memories act as filters to make current decisions. For example, in reviewing resumes, managers should ask themselves these questions:

  • "Does this person’s resume remind me in any way about myself?"
  • "Does it remind me of somebody I know? Is that positive or negative?"

Reorganizing structures and systems: Formulate standard policies and procedures to minimize subjective interpretation of factual information. For example, in recruiting employees, the interview process, time, questions asked, etc., should be the same for all candidates.

Accountability: Any person suspected of acting on bias should be asked to explain their actions and behavior. For example, if an HR manager has not hired any people of different ethnicities or color for the last few selection processes, the manager should be asked to justify this decision.

CONCLUSION

"Stupidity and unconscious bias often work more damage than venality." --Bertrand Russell

Human beings will always have preconceived notions about others with whom they may come in contact. People feel comfortable and get a sense of security by belonging to groups that they are familiar with and that share the same background. Problems arise when these homogenous groups become suspicious of or biased against people with different backgrounds, races or ethnicities. Negative ideas get accentuated due to one’s insecurities, limited resources, and by fear of the unknown.

(This article was inspired by Prince Harry’s remarks on unconscious biases printed in several news sources including BBC.com. I thank him for his excellent insights.)

For the complete article with related links, click here. For an author bio, click here.