Unpacking Unconscious Bias: Understanding its Impact and Overcoming its Effects

By Kayli Moody

Imagine you have a coworker who is young and new to your team. You are assigned to a project with her in which the task is to build out a new ad campaign. When you get together to start the project, immediately and without thinking, you jump into an explanation of how to conduct market research. After listening to your explanation, your colleague pulls up an intricate project plan, showcasing the thorough ad campaign launch strategy she put together. Feeling slightly embarrassed, you wonder why you assumed she didn’t know how to conduct market research.

Psychologists Mazarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald coined the term “unconscious bias” in 1995 and defined it as the unconscious attitudes and stereotypes that impact our understandings, actions, and decisions in an oblivious way.

In the above example, it was assumed that a young person who was new to the team lacked the knowledge and experience to start a project, and this assumption led to the decision to give her an education she didn’t actually need. 


Types of unconscious bias

Though we might not recognize it, most of us have hidden biases that impact the decisions we make and the people we interact with. These unconscious biases can come in many forms, such as:  

  • Affinity bias: we tend to like and gravitate towards those who share our beliefs, interests, backgrounds, or experiences 
  • Appearance bias: making a snap judgment about someone based on their height, weight, or perceived physical attractiveness
  • Gender bias: unintentional associations that stem from the gender norms of our culture or society
  • The halo effect: when positive impressions of people in one area positively influence our beliefs about them in other areas (believing someone will make a great employee because they dressed professionally in their first interview)
  • The horn effect: when a negative impression of someone causes us to believe other negative things about them (a person having a bad day snaps at you, and you believe they are a generally angry and unfriendly person)


Hidden, yet harmful

There are many reasons biases can form (social conditioning, personal experiences, associations made on a limited number of observations or experiences) - but as we try to create healthy cultures and communities founded on respect, there are several reasons we must uncover our hidden biases.

  • Unconscious bias can damage relationships. Take the example from the beginning of this blog. The young woman who received an unnecessary education could have easily had her feelings hurt or been annoyed by the assumption that she lacked the skills and experience necessary for the project. If she did, it would introduce a barrier to forming a deeper connection with her.
  • Unconscious bias places complex people in simple buckets. People have many unique and defining characteristics. From gender, to hobbies, to place of residence, to friendships, to family composition, to profession, people are a complex amalgamation of nature and nurture. To stereotype someone based on one or two of their characteristics is to make an assumption of epic proportions. And you know what they say about assuming...
  • Unconscious bias can further entrench exclusion and inequities. There are so many examples we could use here - think of the person whose resume doesn’t get picked because the recruiter can’t pronounce their name. Or the woman who gets passed over for the promotion despite having achieved more than her male colleague. Or the exclusion of people experiencing homelessness from society because conditioning has led many to believe that their circumstances are always a result of poor decision-making.


How do we start unpacking bias?

We know that unconscious bias can have negative consequences - so how do we address it?

Get it out in the open. If unconscious biases are hidden, the first step is to admit to ourselves that we have them and start questioning how they impact our decisions. 

The second step is to look at the culture surrounding us and examine the messages we hear about certain groups of people. We must question these messages, asking if they are founded on prejudice and hatred rather than truth. 

The third step is to start talking with others. If we leave the task of unpacking biases to ourselves, they may remain in our blind spots. As we discuss with others, though, they can shine a light into the back of our minds, where biases hide.

This month, Inclusivv hosted a conversation on Unconscious Bias with our lovely members as part of our Inclusion and Belonging Journey. We embraced vulnerability by sharing times when we acted on our unconscious biases, and we explored how we can shift from being carriers of unconscious bias to creators of psychological safety in our workplaces.


Our members' wisdom

When it came time to share takeaways from our conversations, our members blew us away with their wisdom. Here are some nuggets:  


“There are few people who step outside of themselves and think about others’ experiences. It shouldn’t have to happen to you to matter to you.”

“Prejudice is always destroyed by experience.”

“Unconscious bias is real.  Be mindful of your own. You can only change what you acknowledge.”

“Don't trust your first impressions. You're operating on low to no information—maybe on bias more than anything else.”


To eliminate unconscious bias, our members recommended a few actions:

  • Speak up. When we see biases impacting someone’s actions, we need to be courageous enough to speak up in the moment. By using the excuse that it doesn’t feel like the right time, we surrender our power to protect someone.
  • Role model what it means to unpack bias. Be a courageous leader who admits that you have biases and shows others how you are actively working to eliminate them. Have conversations with others about how you can disrupt biases and promote equity in your workplace.
  • Go against the grain. If society is on a moving sidewalk that follows biases and believes stereotypes, we must have the courage to walk backwards against the flow of traffic. Don’t be afraid to bump into people along the way.

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To create cultures where people are recognized for their uniqueness, we must be willing to get to know them on a holistic level, rather than making quick - and often incorrect - judgments about them. 

Through having courageous conversations with others, we can unpack our biases. And as one of our members reminded us, “It is a gift to you to get to know someone else, and a gift to them to get to know you.” 

If you want to experience the Unconscious Bias conversation and other topics on our Inclusion and Belonging Membership Journey, click here.


Tags: DEI, Inclusion

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