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Unconscious Biases

| June 11, 2019

by Jim Bruce

Several times over the past few years, the Tuesday Reading has focused on biases:

Today, we continue with this general theme focusing on the unconscious nature of many of our biases, how we can be more aware of them and take appropriate measures to manage their sometimes unhelpful actions. 
[Note: In this essay we will refer to “unconscious biases.” In some of the literature, the term “implicit bias” is used instead and often the two terms are used interchangeably. Formally, “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 judgments 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.”In this essay we will use the term “unconscious” in both instances.]
The term “cognitive bias” was created by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1972 and quite simply means “our tendency to filter information, process facts and arrive at judgments based on our past experiences, likes/dislikes and automatic influences.”2
 In their 2015 essay, Beyond Bias,Heidi Grant Halvorson and David Rock expanded this definition: “Biases are nonconscious drivers — cognitive quirks — that influence how people see the world. They appear to be universal in most of humanity, perhaps hardwired into the brain as part of our genetic or cultural heritage, and they exert their influence outside conscious awareness. You cannot go shopping, enter a conversation, or make a decision without your biases kicking in.
“On the whole, biases are helpful and adaptive. They enable people to make quick, efficient judgments and decisions with minimal cognitive effort. But they can also blind a person to new information, or inhibit someone from considering valuable options when making an important decision.” And in doing this, they can shape our world view and our expectations of others.3
In our previous Tuesday Readings, we focused on the large number, over 160, of biases that have been identified, and their organization into five — 

  • Similarity – “People like me are better than others.” 
  • Expedience – “If it feels right, it must be true.”
  • Experience – “My perceptions must be accurate.” 
  • Distance – “Near is stronger than far.” and
  • Safety – “Bad is stronger than good.” 

 — categories based on their underlying cognitive nature. (This model is often referred to as SEEDS,TM so named by the Neuroscience Institute.3)
We’ve also noted that biases enable each of us to rapidly construct our own “subjective social reality” based on our individual perception of the information we are receiving from our senses. Sometimes this is very helpful, and sometimes our biases lead to perceptual distortion, inaccurate judgment, or illogical interpretation.  
For example, a child runs out in front of your car chasing her kitten and you automatically stamp on the brake. Automatically. No conscious thinking involved. Our name is called, and we automatically turn to respond. Our brains are hardwired to make these unconscious decisions because, otherwise, the number of actions we face each day would overwhelm us were we to consciously evaluate each one and decide what to do. 
However, this is not always the case. Not all of our biases are helpful. Some of our biases are the result of consciously or unconsciously instinctively categorizing people and things using easily observed criteria such as age, weight, skin color, and gender. We also classify people according to their name, educational level, educational institution they attended, disability, sexuality, accent, social status, job title, etc. And, as we do this, we automatically assign presumed traits to anyone we put into those groups.4
No matter how unbiased we think we are, we may have subconscious, negative opinions about people who are outside our “in-group.” While we may not be aware of our prejudices, and prefer not to admit them if we are, they can have damaging consequence on both the way we manage and the people we manage. Perceived discrimination affects job performance, satisfaction, morale, whether a person stays or leaves, who is hired, who is promoted, who gets the exciting assignments, workgroup morale, etc. 
So, how do I deal with my unconscious biases? Tanmay Voray, in the essay Being Conscious About Our Unconscious Biases,2  suggests seven things a person might do to learn about and exert better control over his or her unconscious biases: 

  1. Get conscious – Know your biases well. Look for them. Recognize them. Be curious about them. Engage them.
  2. Ask questions, often – Think critically about decisions you make and actions that you take. When you do this, you are extending an opportunity to yourself and to others to better understand everyone’s thinking.
  3. Look for patterns – As you regularly engage your biases over time, you provide yourself with an opportunity to see patterns in your behavior. For example, you may observe that though you have people of color on your team you rarely give them critical assignments.
  4. Look for the contrary – Sometimes take a contrarian position, be the “devil’s advocate.” Taking a different perspective challenges you and others to more fully understand the situation.
  5. Embrace diversity – In hiring, in promotion, in making assignments embrace diversity. This will enable you to tap into diverse ideas and viewpoints.
  6. Look for data and evidence – Ask for the data to back up decisions and conclusions. This doesn’t mean that you don’t trust those involved; it shows that you really want to understand and to make the right decisions.
  7. Communicate clearly – Biases are often most visible in how a leader communicates. Avoid using generic terms to describe people, situations, and things. Being mindful about our words is critical to thinking and communicating objectively.

We all have unconscious biases. They inhabit every corner of our world. It may be our tendency to run every “yellow” traffic light or it may be to evaluate the comments of people “like me” less critically than I do those of other individuals. Think about whether it’s time for you to begin to take the time to become more aware of the unconscious biases that are a part of your “standard operating procedures” and to diligently work to address any biases that are inappropriate.
You may be asking how I might learn more about my unconscious biases. One way is by taking the Implicit Association Test (IAT) which was created by researchers from Harvard, Virginia and Washington universities. This online test measures the strength of links you make between concepts, for example race or sexuality, and evaluation of stereotypes, such as whether those concepts are good or bad. (Note that there are 14 separate “bias” areas in this test and that taking each test requires about 10-15 minutes of your time. If you explore, you may want to begin by selecting test areas that are of greater interest to you.)
Another useful exercise is to imagine a positive contact with a group toward whom you have a bias. Research has shown that simply visualizing a particular situation can create the same behavioral and psychological effects as actually experiencing it. 
As this essay teaches us, we are all biased. I hope that you will make time this week to learn more about your biases and to begin to become more aware of your actions and behaviors and to work to make any adjustments you find necessary.
Do make it a great week for you and your team. .  .  .  jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

  1. Tinu Cornish and Pete Jones, Unconscious Bias and Higher Education, Equity Challenge Unit, September 2013.
  2. Tanmay Vora, Being Conscious About Our Unconscious Biases,, January 2018. [Note: This blog post includes a very helpful sketch illustrating how to address unhelpful biases.]
  3. Heidi Grant Halvorson and David Rock, Beyond Bias, strategie+business,  July 2015.
  4. MindTools Content Team, Avoiding Unconscious Bias at Work,

Other Helpful Reading:

  1. Unconscious Bias, Office of Strategic Diversity and Inclusion Programs, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
  2. Adam Hoffman, Can Science Help People Unlearn Their Unconscious Biases?,, July 2015.
  3. Trudy Bourgeois, Unconscious Bias: It Starts With You and Me, HuffPost, February 2012.
  4. Jerry Kang, Implicit Bias: A Primer for Courts, NCSC –The National Center for State courts, August 2009.