Unconscious bias – a conscious examination

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[Written by Charles Pring]

[Image Credits: Bernard Hermant (Accessed through Unsplash)]

Content Warning: This article contains discussion of racial discrimination and biases.

Have you ever made a snap judgement about someone based on their race or gender? This is referred to as ‘unconscious bias’, and as a member of the human race, it’s probably something you’ve done at some point. Don’t feel too guilty though – it’s something that we all do, without even noticing. In this article, I’m going to look at exactly what ‘unconscious bias’ is, why it exists, and how we can train our minds to be less influenced by it.

In researching this piece, I came across a considerable range of definitions for the term ‘unconscious’ (or ‘implicit’) bias, which is perhaps a reflection of its broad influence. But in basic terms, ‘unconscious bias’ occurs when someone subliminally assumes something about another individual, based on a social group they perceive that individual to be part of.

These perceived social groups can include race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, religion, and various others. Moreover, many studies have shown that ‘unconscious’ biases affect decision-making in almost all walks of life. These biases are almost ubiquitously present and are exaggerated by pressures such as stress and exhaustion. It is worth noting as well that these subconscious snap judgements that we make are frequently at odds with our consciously held beliefs, in this sense, adding to their extremely deep-rooted nature.

I’ll give you an example. In an experiment designed to demonstrate and quantify implicit bias, participants were shown pictures of European and African American men holding either a gun or a camera, and were then asked to make an instant decision on whether a gun or camera was being held. The results showed that participants were consistently more likely to assume that a black male was in possession of a weapon and that a white male wasn’t, even when this was not the case. Interestingly, this assumption was also made by African Americans participants, though not to the same degree as by Europeans.

So why do these biases exist? These split-second judgements arise from our propensity for categorising objects and people, which we do to help us process the overwhelming amount of information that our world constantly bombards us with. And this kind of categorisation is frequently helpful. To take a very simple example, once you have stepped on one piece of Lego, it is safe to categorise all subsequent pieces of Lego as ‘Painful To Step On.’

Categorising things thusly has a long evolutionary history, which partly explains why biases can be so acutely ingrained in our brains. Throughout much of our existence as a species, those from different tribes to our own – also known as an “out-group” – have posed an inherent threat to “us” – the “in-group”. This goes some way to explaining why people might be unconsciously distrusting of someone they perceive to belong to a different group from them, or more trusting of someone they consider “one of their own”.

However, as the African American participants in the gun-or-camera exercise demonstrated, ‘implicit’ bias is not purely the result of our evolution; social conditioning is also at play. In the case of this particular experiment, it is likely that things such as the prevalence of news reports linking people of colour with gun crime and the common affiliation of African American rappers and guns led even Black participants to correlate skin colour with likelihood of possessing a weapon.

This is just one example of social conditioning further cementing our already existing biases – there are countless others. What they make clear is the risk of compounding these pervasive biases by continuing to let them infiltrate the media.

Thankfully, there are ways to overcome ‘unconscious’ biases!

The first step is simply to gain an understanding of the concept itself. In doing so, we learn that ‘unconscious’ bias is a natural function of our human cognition. This then allows us to develop a clearer understanding of our own biases. Developing this understanding can also help us to make judgements (or not as the case may be!) using our conscious rather than unconscious minds, by deliberately slowing down our decision-making.

Another way of reducing bias is to get to know people from “out-groups” – those we perceive as different from ourselves. Consequently, we come to realise that they are actually not so different, thus weakening, as a result, our implicit “in-group vs out-group” mentality. And it is my personal belief that the opportunity this last method opens up for making new friends makes it by far the best option!


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