Unconscious bias

Unconscious bias refers to a bias that we are unaware of. It is driven by exposure to cultural stereotypes.

Definitions

"Unconscious bias refers to a bias that we are unaware of and which happens outside of our control. It is a bias that happens automatically and is triggered by our brain making quick judgements and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences.

Implicit bias refers to the same area, but questions the level to which these biases are unconscious especially as we are being made increasingly aware of them. Once we know that biases are not always explicit, we are responsible for them. We all need to recognise and acknowledge our biases and find ways to mitigate their impact on our behaviour and decisions.” Equality Challenge Unit UK: Unconscious Bias in Higher Education Review 2013.

Unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups are a product of our life experiences and one of the ways we attempt to organise a complex world, i.e., social categorisation. By definition, we are unaware of unconscious biases. They occur when we make fast judgements, are tired or under pressure. They are automatic, and they may often be incompatible with our conscious values and considered actions.

Examples

  • Assuming an older person walking with a young child is the child’s grandparent
  • Belief that men will not have care-giving responsibilities
  • Expecting lower achievement from UTAS students 
  • Assuming a female applicant with young children will take more time off work than a male applicant
  • Associating good/bad work ethic with particular ethnic groups

Socially dominant groups often have implicit bias against subordinate groups, and individuals usually have a preference for members of a category to which they belong (1). These biases can be a significant factor in decision-making resulting in erroneous and harmful decisions.
 

Implicit Association Test

In 1995 Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald developed a test, the Implicit Association Test (IAT) to measure the strength of automatic associations, revealing people’s hidden biases about gender, race, age, disability, sexuality and 90 other topics. See Project Implicit for more information on the IAT. Read on to find out more...

Evidence of bias in employment and education

International research has detailed pervasive evidence of unconscious bias in employment, education, health, justice and many other areas of life. Most common biases are based on a person’s gender, race and age but can occur in a positive or negative way for all categories of people. Continue reading about bias in employment and education...

Overcoming unconscious bias and implicit associations

While in many cases unconscious bias awareness training may result in insightful discussions, behaviour change may not occur or may only be short term. Additionally with some people, awareness raising may actually unintentionally encourage more biased thinking and behaviours. Also, by hearing that others are biased and it’s ‘natural’ to hold stereotypes, some people may feel less motivated to change their biases (14, 15).

Moving beyond awareness of unconscious bias and implicit associations to long term bias reversal and inclusive behaviours requires changes in organisational practices plus practical interventions to address personal biases and creation of new positive behaviours and pro-active approaches to working with people who are ‘different’ from the majority group. For example see references (16, 17, 18, 19, 20).
Discover more about overcoming unconscious bias...

Common decision making biases

There are many common biases that affect everyday decision making. These include the affinity or ‘similar to me’ effect, anchoring or first impressions bias, attribution error or stereotyping, confirmation bias, group-think and the halo/horns bias. More on common biases...

Civility and micro-behaviours

There are also many subtle positive and negative messages in our interactions with people which can have a significant impact on those around us leading them to be feel more included or not. Read more about subtle messages...

Responding to everyday “isms”

Sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia, ableism, etc., are often expressed in everyday conversations and delivered as ‘humour’, off-hand comments or story-telling. Be an active bystander when witnessing such behaviour and speak up and support those it’s directed to. Find out more about how to respond to "isms"...

How privileged are you?

BuzzFeed Australia has created a video of the privilege walk which is a useful tool to show the effect privilege plays in all of our lives. Also from an Auckland based cartoonist, a descriptive cartoon on privilege. Further information on privilege...