Let's decode... bias
Unconscious bias. Implicit bias. Is there a difference? And what is bias anyway?
Unconscious bias is…
The same as implicit bias
Both mean an unconscious belief, association or attitude towards a particular situation or social group, and they often manifest as stereotypes. Picture an airline pilot. Now picture a university professor addressing students in a lecture theatre.
Unconscious bias is responsible for how our minds respond to these prompts. If 99% of the pilots you've seen in real life (or the media) are male, you will likely have pictured a man. For these same reasons, you may not have visualised the professor as a wheelchair user. These are examples of our brains using our experiences and the messages we receive from the world around us to take shortcuts and draw conclusions.
Unconscious bias isn’t inherently bad, but it becomes problematic when it results in unfair treatment. For instance, rejecting a woman for a pilot job. Her credentials are solid but pilot equals man, right? When we make decisions based on assumptions about an individual or group's abilities and interests rather than fact-driven evidence, that's a problem.
Available in a range of flavours
Unconscious bias is a catch-all term for the hundreds of ways in which bias can affect our thinking. According to Psychology Today, common biases affecting everyday decision-making include:
Confirmation bias: favouring ideas that confirm existing beliefs
In-group bias: favouring those who are similar to you or form part of the same social group
Self-serving bias: attributing positive outcomes to our doing, and negative outcomes to other people or external contextual factors
Hindsight bias: after something happens it seems obvious that it would happen all along
Negativity bias: weighing the potential for negative outcomes as more important than the potential for positive outcomes
Basically, there’s a whole lot of biases for our brains to choose from. And consequently no quick fix for overcoming them.
Unconscious bias is not...
Seeing and acknowledging difference
“My daughter has two new friends with very similar names. I asked, is Lara the girl with lighter skin or darker skin? My daughter was confused; she hadn’t noticed their skin tone. A few days later she told me that Lara has lighter skin, and Laura darker skin. Both girls had worn white T-shirts that day, so she'd noticed the difference.
I’m happy to know which name to call each girl, but ashamed that I have introduced my daughter to bias.”
This is not bias.
Recognising that Lara and Laura have different skin tones is like saying that a square and a triangle are not the same shape. That’s fact. Bias comes in when you assume something about the square or treat it differently to the triangle based purely on the fact that it is a square.
Biases are both necessary and essential for humans. These split-second decisions our brains make inform us how to behave in social situations, and instantly help us intuit what is appropriate behaviour and what to expect. As such, unconscious bias is an important tool for detecting and evading danger.
However, it’s easy for our brains to misread cues - especially since the process takes place so quickly. When they do, unconscious bias shifts from being a danger detection device into a tool for stereotyping and labelling.
So while bias is 100% natural, it’s also 100% necessary to be aware of it. And to try to consciously override our bias when it’s doing harm instead of good.
Want to explore your own unconscious bias? Take some free tests courtesy of Harvard University’s Project Implicit.