Recently, I began a new job and went through an orientation filled with informative presentations, engaging group discussions, and activities which set high expectations for the company’s employees and their behavior.
Because these messages do not end with my initial onboarding, I will continue to gain a greater appreciation for this company’s culture, mission and values as time moves forward.
What I learned, aside from the company fostering a work environment deeply rooted in openness, collaboration, diversity and inclusion, was the great lengths to which the company goes to preserve this culture.
As part of this, one recurring theme surfaced. The company prioritizes having awareness of and making efforts to mitigate a common human behavior: unconscious bias (or implicit bias).
Prior to this series of presentations, I had not heard much about the term, but have come to appreciate its finer intricacies with more study.
When initially hearing about this human shortcoming, I thought it only represented a failure of evolution. Learning about how our minds jump quickly to a solution, which is often inconsistent with the present facts and circumstances, sure seems like a major human drawback.
However, this is not always the case. These mental frameworks usually activate implicitly within our conscious awareness to make all sorts of beneficial judgments and decisions.
Examples include identifying a bus though we may never have seen it before, knowing what a tree looks like despite no two looking the same, or even learning a new language or technology by applying what we already know to a new one.
As we will learn, these mental shortcuts help us navigate a complex world, though may not always be accurate. They also require mitigating actions to overcome our biased genetic wiring.
To understand these concepts more, this post will explore the science of unconscious bias and how it can affect decision-making and interactions in terms of equity, diversity and inclusion.
We will then learn about stereotypes and some useful strategies which can help us prevent unconscious bias from overtaking our everyday decisions.
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Conceptualizing Unconscious Bias with an Example
To conceptualize unconscious bias, let us start by imagining a scenario where job interviewers for an open STEM position have the task of assessing identical, well-qualified resumes submitted by two applicants.
Half of the interviewers receive an application from ‘Jessica’ and the other half see one from ‘Mark.’ Once again, their resumes otherwise appear as carbon copies.
Overall, the interviewers decide Jessica cannot perform the tasks required of the role as well as Mark. The interviewers implicitly see her as less competent and therefore offer her a lower salary for the position.
Jessica’s interviewers slighted her without recognition of her abilities and if she knew why, she would be right to be angry with the result. Through nothing of her own doing, or her competitor’s, she received a poorer offer due to her interviewers’ unconscious biases.
What if I told you that this situation is not fictitious? Rather, a study (cited below) found these exact results.
But why is this? Simply put, the interviewers fell prey to their unconscious bias. They did not do this intentionally and are certainly not the only ones.
In their experience, men primarily hold STEM roles whereas women make up a lesser proportion.
One study found 74% of girls express an interest in going into STEM while in middle school, and yet only 0.4% select computer science as a college major. Many appear to find this career difficult to jump into and are disheartened when they see few females in the field.
When the interviewers assessed Jessica’s qualifications, she started with an implicit disadvantage because of the interviewers’ perceptions of the world. Our minds quickly jump to a solution, which is often consistent with our experiences, thought-patterns and perspectives, also called schema or paradigms.
In other words, the mental processing for how you make sense of the world.
These schema involve assumptions we make to assess others and involve taking mental shortcuts to size up complex situations quickly.
However, they can be misleading and outright harmful to others as we learned with poor Jessica. These mental shortcuts, which can lead us astray, are called unconscious biases.
Formally, the definition of unconscious bias is a social stereotype held by an individual about groups of people outside their own conscious awareness. These occur naturally because everyone organically forms unconscious perspectives about various social and identity groups, whether good or bad.
The important action to take involves borrowing a page from London’s metro system and “[Minding] the Gap.” The mental gap, that is.
The brain uses these unconscious biases to create a mental processing framework to rationalize the world we perceive by making decisions quickly with incomplete information. Said concisely: minding the gap.
And while these unconscious biases help us navigate a complex world, they aren’t always right. In the first unconscious bias example above, objectively speaking, both candidates submitted applications in-line with the stated requirements of the role.
If the interviewers had looked at the candidates unbiasedly, they would have come to the conclusion that both candidates can fill the role and perform admirably. Instead, they associated competence in STEM roles with males because these jobs have traditionally been filled by men.
Source: Moss-Racusin, C.A., Dovidio, J.F., Brescoll, V.L., Graham, M.J., & Handelsman, J. (2012). Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109(41), 16474-16479.
Unconscious Bias in Consumer Goods – The Pepsi Paradox
In the 1980s, Pepsi waged a famous campaign to unseat Coca-Cola, the world’s foremost beverage maker. The company attempted to compare the two products head-to-head and allow the consumer to decide which company produced a superior, more-appealing product.
What Pepsi and the public came to recognize was people do not derive their enjoyment purely from the qualities of a product. Instead, their experience depends on numerous other factors outside the realm of a blind taste testing.
Coca-Cola has run numerous wholesome, uplifting brand awareness campaigns over the years and convinced the consumer of the positives associated with the Coca-Cola brand.
As evidence, Santa Claus, perhaps the most positive fictitious character in the Western world, even co-opted the brand for his famous Christmas Eve gift deliveries.
When comparing products side-by-side, brains rarely have exhaustive scientific data to go by when deciding which product is more enjoyable. As a result, when the mind forms a complete picture of the situation, it must fill in the blanks with help from our unconscious mind.
Because of this, the mind completes the picture for us by referencing a product’s packaging, branding, and even environmental components to determine which drink the taste-tester enjoys.
The famous comparison challenge routinely showed participants enjoyed Pepsi to Coca-Cola’s taste and yet Coca-Cola still outsells Pepsi each year after. We unwittingly judge products by their boxes, books by their covers, and even people by their first impressions.
Together, many factors not directly related to a product consort to create a mental experience which can change preferences.
Whether you have awareness of it, when you run cool, quenching Pepsi and Coca-Cola over your tongue, you do not just taste the chemical compositions of these products.
Instead, you taste their prices, marketing messages, packaging, brand associations, atmosphere, and many other aspects which do not register on your tongue.
This effect, called the “Pepsi Paradox,” reveals Pepsi as the preferred drink in blind taste tests and yet still loses year-after-year to Coca-Cola in sales figures.
Much like Jessica and Mark, the former could be the better applicant but previous experiences created unconscious biases for the interviewers to prefer Mark for the role. The interviewers’ unconscious bias prevents them from seeing the objective qualifications of Jessica.
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The Difficulty of Remedying Unconscious Bias
Unconscious bias is often hard to recognize because of the subtle and ambiguous ways in which it manifests. Regardless of the difficulty, this doesn’t diminish its impact when it comes to matters of access, advantage, opportunity, (otherwise known as social capital) and success in our society.
This remains particularly true for those who are deemed underrepresented in reference to the majority or those who are marginalized by society.
What’s more, it is reasonable to expect these dynamics, seen at a global scale across all humans, can, and will, show up in our personal and professional lives. As a result, mitigating unconscious bias is important to achieve the best possible outcome in any life situation.
Unconscious bias only slows down progress as society aims to produce innovative solutions to difficult problems. It also influences how we interact with each other and the decisions we make.
Further, unconscious bias can impact our sense of respect, belonging, and safety. To amplify the downsides of unconscious bias, it often flows through our systems and processes across all human interactions.
Because of this, mitigating unconscious bias remains important should we strive to live in a world where we all feel included, supported, and positioned to live up to what’s possible. To fulfill our maximum potential, we must look beyond our own frames of references, overcome our unconscious biases, and act in ways which include all of us.
Doing this requires embedding diverse perspectives in our thinking and reaching out to people in underrepresented communities to fight our unconscious biases. Doing so will inevitably lead to better societal outcomes as our solutions are inclusive and to the benefit of more people.
Benefits of Mitigating Unconscious Bias
Mitigating unconscious bias provides numerous benefits to society. Not only does it lead to superior decision-making, it also helps us to gain new insight.
More specifically, by examining the unconscious filters affecting how we see others, we can:
- Explore new methods for accomplishing our goals
- Exposing ourselves to different ideas, and
- Examining previously unrecognized potential in those around us
One of my favorite phrases growing up was “Unity in Diversity.” This spoke to standing behind unity without uniformity and diversity without fragmentation.
In other words, embracing a tolerant view of multiple differences seen between humans based on a more enlightened understanding that difference enriches human interactions.
Borrowing from this concept, addressing unconscious biases in our decisions and how we interact with others is important for our culture. Overcoming these limitations can result in better opportunities for all of us.
This can also lead to a wider array of thoughts and ideas and therefore the acceptance of more diverse and inclusive thinking. Unconscious bias hinders broad-based progress.
Now, let’s dive into why our brains act the way they do regarding unconscious bias.
The Science Behind Unconscious Bias
So why do our brains create and utilize these mental shortcuts when things can go wrong?
Well, the human brain doesn’t distinguish between right and wrong quite the way our society has come to categorize morality. Chalk it up to a mismatch between extended evolutionary timelines and rapidly changing societal norms.
Regardless, these mental shortcuts prove extremely useful for navigating the world around us. Let’s revisit an example mentioned above about knowing what a bus looks like without having seen this exact bus before.
On my first day of work, I did not know what to expect in terms of public transportation in California. Be it timeliness, frequency, or condition.
However, I used Google Maps to create my route and trusted it to work. A mental shortcut within this mental shortcut example, no less.
When I waited at the bus stop outside my apartment, I knew some large vehicle would drive by and pick me up for my commute. Presumably, my mental shortcut would recognize such a vehicle when it pulled up to the stop.
Had I consciously processed this decision, I would have only managed to picture the bus I rode in New Orleans when I was younger.
However, I considered the bus in California would fit the template of what I imagined a bus elsewhere might look like. I relied on my mental shortcut to impose my pre-existing knowledge about buses upon a bus I had never seen.
This mental shortcut demonstrates how our brains:
- intake information
- consider the context
- reference learned associations, and then
- predict what to expect
The brain does all of this in a short period of time. I allowed my brain to fill in the blanks by using schemas.
From this example, you can see how this quick, implicit processing can help any number of activities from driving a car to navigating roads you have never traveled (or even familiar activities for travel hacking).
This story becomes infinitely more nuanced when we consider how we perceive people. In this case, we do not just identify them as human beings.
Rather, we make inferences about characteristics, traits, qualities, intelligence, reliability, what skills they might have, what they do, and many other subjective things using available information.
Stated succinctly: when we perceive people, our brains take a natural leap and fill in the blanks.
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Stereotypes in Action
To illustrate stereotypes in action, let’s think about another example. Imagine yourself flying solo and in the airport waiting to board your flight. Before you depart, you need to use the bathroom because turbulence is not kind to you and you would prefer to avoid that experience on a rough flight and needing to use the bathroom.
Instead of bringing your carry-on and personal item with you to the restroom, you look around and ask someone near you to watch them while you step away. Your choices nearby are a young white woman or an elderly black man.
Both options seem approachable, but who would you deem more reliable? Your mind will provide the answer based on visible characteristics such as their race, gender, age, and how they dress.
You will make a judgment and decide who to ask. Hopefully, regardless of who you choose, your travelling items do not get stolen!
Consider daily situations such as this when our brains make these types of judgments and decisions with limited information.
Let us consider how stereotypes might influence your thoughts and behaviors with people around you in your day-to-day life.
What assumptions might you make about your co-workers, fellow church-goers, running buddies, etc. with respect to their interests, preferences, and capabilities because of their visible and non-visible characteristics?
How might these show up in different contexts outside of how you regularly interact with them? For example, does running on Saturday mornings then lead you to believe this person enjoys the outdoors because she runs regularly?
Or, suppose one of your direct reports expresses interest in a certain work activity. Do you then find yourself assigning this type of work to your co-worker who wants to learn more and assume this person can complete all required aspects of the activity?
Now that we have reviewed some of the potential impacts of unconscious bias, what can we do to mitigate its impacts? The first step on bias mitigation is awareness.
Types of Unconscious (Implicit) Bias
Because unconscious bias results in rapidly assessed contextual information rendered using your personal experiences, this inevitably leads to decisions made based upon this process. This section will review some major types of decision-making bias for which we should know to gain awareness.
- Accessibility Bias. This bias asserts people tend to base our assumptions on limited information and then fail to seek information not already known by us.
- Availability Bias. Closely related to accessibility bias, what information we currently know receives a greater weighting when making decisions. Combining accessibility and availability bias results in estimating the likelihood of events occurring by how easily we can bring them to mind and then how we fail to account for what we do not know.
- Anchoring Bias. This occurs when we anchor, or tether ourselves mentally, in the direction of a relevant comparison value, or “anchor.” When we do not have an idea of the situation, we can anchor to a suggestion of what sounds reasonable in the absence of further information. Or simply, when estimating values, we often “anchor” our estimate to an initial estimate (even if irrelevant) and then adjust this toward the correct answer. Often, this adjustment is not sufficient to move toward the actual answer.
- Confirmation Bias. I fall prey to this bias regularly. We rarely actively seek out ways to falsify our own hypotheses and instead tend to go with what’s easy or feels right. I made this mistake when I first learned how to start investing money and why I now choose to invest in index funds when possible. When a person must make a decision, they do not want to find resources which results in their initial assumptions being wrong. We do not want to hear the answer “no” and would rather believe information which fits our pre-existing beliefs. Further compounding the problem, we only tend to seek information which proves our existing point of view, not disproving it.
- Affinity Bias. This bias represents having preferences for people with attributes similar to ourselves. We tend to empathize with these individuals and grant them the benefit of the doubt in trying situations while feeling less empathetic for people unlike ourselves. This bias closely relates to the next bias, self-serving bias.
- Self-Serving (Overconfidence) Bias. This bias contends we attribute our successes to personal characteristics (e.g., character, motivation, intention, talent, etc.) and our failures to factors beyond our control (e.g., lack of resources, poor team coordination, failure to receive information from external party in a timely manner, etc.). However, we tend not to do this for others, instead assuming incompetence on their part. We judge situational factors beneficially to ourselves, such as considering competing demands when we attempt to explain our own negative behavior than when explaining others’ negative behavior during collaborative work. In short, the tendency to attribute our failures to situational factors (as opposed to personal characteristics) is known as self-serving bias. We often (mistakenly) hold a high degree of certainty in our beliefs and abilities and also overestimate our own morality relative to the “average” person.
- Bazerman, Max, and Don A. Moore. (2013). Judgment in Managerial Decision Making. 8th ed. John Wiley & Sons.
- Samuelson, W. & Zeckhauser, R. J Risk Uncertainty (1988) 1: 7. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00055564
- Plous, S. (1993). McGraw-Hill series in social psychology. The psychology of judgment and decision making.New York, NY, England: Mcgraw-Hill Book Company.
- Walther, J.B., & Bazarova, N. N. (2007). Misattribution in Virtual Groups: The Effects of Member Distribution on Self‐Serving Bias and Partner Blame. Human Communication Research, 33(1), 1-26.
Preventing and Mitigating Bias (Awareness, Pausing and Questioning)
Above, I discussed the various ways to bring awareness to possible unconscious bias. I walked through the most common forms of unconscious bias by providing descriptions of them for you to be aware of what each one represents.
Having awareness of these biases remains the first step to mitigating unconscious bias because you cannot respond to what you do not know. The next step for mitigating unconscious bias is called pausing.
This practice forces you to pause from your thoughts and actions and to take a moment to reflect. Because different parts of the mind respond to external stimuli in staggered phases, taking a moment to pause remains a powerful mitigation technique for overcoming unconscious biases.
The brain’s thalamus receives and transmits information simultaneously, but the amygdala (emotional response) receives the information 28 milliseconds prior to the prefrontal cortex (rational response). This differential creates the effect of being emotional before being rational.
In this case, pausing means to slow down with your actions, become aware of and curious in the moment. This brief respite can open your mind up to other possibilities instead of the initial thoughts jumping into your mind.
Pausing requires real, conscious effort, and can help us become more aware of our assumptions as well as how they can be potentially harmful to others. This practice is an important habit worth cultivating because it can provide reflection on your actions and also allow for a better solution should your initial idea not prove to be best.
To build on this practice, a natural extension would be questioning. Having the presence of mind to question yourself, hold skepticism in your ideas, and choosing to be self-aware of your limitations and uncertainty can lead you to a better, more inclusive solution.
This one-two punch of pausing and questioning, layered on top of awareness, can help us to slow down and consider the information we have or do not have available to us (accessibility and availability biases).
This provides an opportunity to recognize what beliefs guide the decision we are tempted to make and challenge the assumptions we might be making.
Regularly practicing these two actions will put us on a path to becoming mindful, open, humble, and curious – all important aspects of the bias mitigation mindset which can be applied to our lives.
In the process of adopting these bias mitigation strategies, it is natural to be confronted by feelings of discomfort, guilt, and/or shame. These are natural human protective responses as these actions expose flaws in our thinking and ourselves.
Becoming aware of these flaws, repeating these strategies, and changing your actions builds this behavior and becomes your new normal.
Most importantly, these mental triggers present opportunities to improve. Should your initial thoughts and actions put you in a situation where your unconscious biases led you astray, then we should apologize and learn from your mistakes.
A simple, “I’m sorry for my mistake and I commit to doing better next time,” will go a long way. The direct nature of this signals self-awareness and an effort to improve.
We have reviewed a significant amount of information related to decision-making biases, unconscious bias, and the mental shortcuts we use to assess the world around us to make snap judgments based on incomplete information.
The unconscious mind takes sensory data (visual, auditory, smell, feel), processes it rapidly, and presents our conscious minds with a clear and detailed picture. What you perceive looks real, but does not necessarily reflect what actually exists in reality.
Our brains construct an image created from the observed data by filling in the missing blanks with mental shortcuts. These mental effects employ context, expectations, prior knowledge and beliefs– even desires.
Similarly, our social perceptions construct themselves in an analogous manner. We normally have limited data and fill in the blanks employing the same mental effects using context, prior knowledge, etc.
Therefore, our judgement of people, our experience of events, and even our assessment of data never truly represent objective reflections of our social reality. Often, our initial inclination roots itself in unconscious biases and you should have awareness of this while practicing pausing and questioning.
Before acting on your initial assumption, take a moment to mind the mental gap. While not always necessary, when you seek to disprove your initial thoughts and ideas, you sometimes end up proving it – and other times you can save yourself from making a big mistake.
What we need to do first is be willing to hear “no” as an answer to our own initial thoughts. And even if you think you are right, you need to make sure you have asked questions which might actually produce an answer of “no.”
If you still need work on this trait, there is nothing to worry about: you are only human.
About the Site Author and Blog
In 2018, I was winding down a stint in investor relations and found myself newly equipped with a CPA, added insight on how investors behave in markets, and a load of free time. My job routinely required extended work hours, complex assignments, and tight deadlines. Seeking to maintain my momentum, I wanted to chase something ambitious.
I chose to start this financial independence blog as my next step, recognizing both the challenge and opportunity. I launched the site with encouragement from my wife as a means to lay out our financial independence journey and connect with and help others who share the same goal.
I have not been compensated by any of the companies listed in this post at the time of this writing. Any recommendations made by me are my own. Should you choose to act on them, please see my the disclaimer on my About Young and the Invested page.