What Is Unconscious Bias?

We all have blind spots. Even if you run a conscious business, you might be unaware or insensitive about some aspects of the communities you serve.

To be of real service to your customers, it’s important to take a look at your unconscious biases. They are integral to how you operate your business, which means they must be acknowledged and, in some cases, unlearned.

Just what is bias? Bias is a prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way that’s considered unfair. Individuals, groups, and even companies can hold biases.

While biases frequently involve ethnicity, race, gender, and sexual orientation, other characteristics subject to bias are gender identity, education level, age, physical ability, weight, and more.

Why We Form Biases 

There are two types of biases: conscious and unconscious. The unconscious is the part of the mind that is inaccessible to the conscious mind but still affects behavior and emotions. 

Unconscious biases, which are far more common than any biases we may realize we have, form without people knowing it, based on social stereotypes about certain groups of people or from the human tendency to organize the world by categorizing people.

And we have unconscious biases. ALL of us. That doesn’t make us bad people. After all, it’s unconscious, which means we aren’t aware of it unless we look. 

“It’s important that we move away from the label that who is biased is bad and who is not biased is good,” Candice Bosteels, founder and managing director at human resources firm IdentiCy, told Executive Talent magazine. “We’re all biased, and as soon as you start putting labels on people, bias becomes something nasty, and nasty things we typically want to keep under the surface. But we need to get it into the open because as soon as you have people, you have bias.”

How Unconscious Biases Work

Unconscious biases affect our understanding, actions, and decisions. 

Other characteristics of unconscious biases:

  • Everyone has them, even supposedly impartial people like scientists.
  • They tend to favor our own in-group.
  • They don’t necessarily align with what we claim to believe.
  • They’re often related to conscious biases. The two can overlap and fuel each other.

What Are Your Unconscious Biases?

To truly work toward racial and social justice, you must know what your unconscious biases are. 

“Awareness training is the first step to unraveling unconscious bias because it allows employees to recognize that everyone possesses them and to identify their own,” Harvard professor Francesca Gino told Harvard Business Review.

Harvard University has a number of online tests for unconscious biases. These Implicit Association Tests are intended to detect the strength of a person’s subconscious association between groups of people and evaluations or traits.

They’re often used to assess implicit stereotypes, such as unconsciously associating stereotypically black names with words consistent with black stereotypes. They’ve been applied to investigate biases in racial groups, religion, gender, age, and sexuality.  

The good news about unconscious biases is that unlearning them begins with identifying them. Being more informed about biases can reduce the extent they come into play in your life, so simply reading about them is a step toward reducing or eliminating your biases.

Being self-aware of our feelings and beliefs is key to understanding our biases — only then can we move toward honest social progress. This allows us to make more just, informed decisions and avoid decisions that result from blindly following implicit biases.

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Unconscious Bias: It’s Time to Wake Up