Have you ever thought about how a belief you hold that is outside of your conscious awareness might influence the way you behave? Or how a judgment you make about someone can dictate how you act towards him or her?
Try to think of a time in the recent past where you made a snap judgment about someone, or something based on a past experience or a long-standing belief… is it based in fact? Are you certain it’s true? Did that belief dictate a behavior or facilitate a decision?
Let’s think about some examples that are specific to the workplace:
When YouTube launched the video upload feature for their app, 5-10% of videos were uploaded upside-down, and Google developers were baffled, assuming that the videos were uploaded “incorrectly.” Unconscious bias played a role in that the Google engineers designed an app that only worked right-side-up for right-handed users!
Unconscious bias frequently plays a role in hiring. Many studies have demonstrated that, for example, older applicants are considered far less frequently for jobs that require technology or marketing expertise than younger applicants. Applicants with Anglo-sounding names get more call backs than those with diverse names of other origins, particularly in certain parts of the country.
Unconscious bias plays a role when someone or something seems familiar, not just unfamiliar, which also plays a significant role in the workplace. This also plays a significant role in the workplace – when hiring someone new to your team, one is much more likely to select the candidate who reminds them of an old friend from high school, to whom they attribute positive qualities, rather than another candidate who may be equally qualified.
Now, consider how unconscious racial bias plays a role in workplace hiring. An executive is looking to hire a qualified project manager to be on the ground in the community for a high-profile urban project. He selects an African American project manager who was as equally qualified as two other applicants. When asked about the decision, the manager stated that his choice “was a better fit because he speaks the language.” It’s not overtly racist; it’s an assumption. An assumption that because this person is African American, he must be more familiar with the urban environment and the issues the community faces. The reality may be that this African American project manager grew up in the suburbs, went to private school, played polo and has had no experience living in an urban community. He may or may not be the best project manager for the job, but the choice could have been easily based on an invalid assumption completely unrelated to the requirements of the project.
Hopefully you can relate to one or another of these experiences… it may be hard to admit to it, but it may be comforting to know that these examples are very common.
What is “Unconscious Bias”?
Unconscious bias/es are beliefs or attitudes that we all hold, and are aware of to varying degrees that impact how we think about other people. The word ‘unconscious’ can also be replaced by ‘subconscious’ as people are aware of them to varying degrees. These beliefs or attitudes tend to be automatic, and we tend to have either grown up with them, or they have emerged because of a series of experiences (or a single experience) that have been particularly salient. For example, if you grew up in a household that had a particular political affiliation there are likely to be some beliefs that you hold in one direction or another that are a remnant of being part of that household.
These beliefs or attitudes can develop by a function of observation, can come about because of an influential figure or due to a system in which one works, or a meaningful past experience. What is most important about these biases is that they color our responses to situations and help shape our attitudes towards people. Bottom line, they impact how we relate and respond to other people and situations. The above are just a few examples of how they can play out in the workplace.
These subconscious biases aren’t as thoughtfully or critically developed as a rational belief, but they can be just as rigidly adherent. There are many different kinds of biases: Racial biases, Affirmatory biases, Gender bias, Confirmation bias and Ageism, among many others.
One of the more benign examples of bias is to place positive value judgments on people who we see as “like us”. For example, if we have a friend who we identify with in many ways, decades of social psychological research would argue that we would be more likely to assume she is intelligent, athletic, beautiful and would be a good fit at our company because she is “like us”… I know, it’s pretty narcissistic sounding!
Then there are the more discriminatory unconscious biases – racial biases have been a major topic in the past few years, as have gender biases. It’s beyond the scope of this article to adequately cover these biases, but what they all share is that, in order to become more aware of our biases, we have to get less afraid to talk about them… and more open to listening. It can be really difficult to realize that we have a bias, but if we can all understand that biases are unavoidable it would be a huge step forward. We can all become better at self-reflection.
The goal is not to eradicate bias. That is impossible. Our goal is to own it, put it on the table, listen to one another, really listen, challenge our biases, and model for our kids and the next generation that bias is different from fact!
February is Unconscious Bias Awareness Month. Let’s all have one hard conversation about a bias that we have, and open our ears and eyes to something that we may need to challenge within ourselves.
Ariella Soffer, Ph.D. is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist who owns a group practice in Manhattan. Dr. Soffer’s practice specializes in parenting consultation, sports psychology, perinatal mental health in addition to general mental health concerns. Soffer & Associates Comprehensive Psychological Services website can be found here: DrAriellaSoffer.com