Understanding and Overriding Unconscious Bias

Understanding and Overriding Unconscious Bias

by Felicity Menzies

Public-opinion surveys in Western democracies report an almost unanimous rejection of racist beliefs and attitudes, and high endorsement of egalitarian (equality) values. But lower expressed racism does not mean that stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination do not exist. Discrimination studies of rental and employment markets in the United States, the United Kingdom, and across Europe consistently show that significant racial discrimination against minority groups continues. And it is well documented that minority groups experience higher death rates, infant mortality rates, arrest rates, and harsher criminal penalties than dominant cultural groups. 

Unconscious bias

Modern theories of racism and sexism propose that we simultaneously hold unconscious prejudices and strong egalitarian ideals. Our unconscious bias develops mostly from biased media representations. As we are repeatedly exposed to stereotypical associations and prejudices from an early age, they become automated in our long-term memory. At the same time, the outward expression of this internalised bias is curbed by strong social norms and legal restrictions.

The result is a subtle, hidden, and often unconscious negative bias towards particular social groups. Even individuals who truly believe they are totally without prejudice might hold unconscious bias: studies show racism and sexism manifest in prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory behaviour even when a person expressly endorses egalitarian values.

Unconscious bias is problematic in the workplace because, by its definition, an individual will most likely be unaware of its influence. Bias in recruitment, selection, promotion, development, and everyday workplace interaction creates inequality, limits the potential value that can flow from a diverse workforce, increases legal and repetitional risk, and threatens employee engagement, commitment, and productivity.

Overriding unconscious bias

Research shows automatic and unconscious mental responses can be overridden with conscious and deliberate effort. A person who is motivated to be unprejudiced—because of legal sanctions, social pressures or strong personal egalitarian values—can suppress biased responses.

But even well-intentioned individuals fail to suppress their automatic stereotypes and biases all of the time. Controlled responses are deliberate and much slower than automatic responses. There remains the possibility of reflexive and immediate biased responses, even in individuals who support egalitarian values. Also, when people are mentally taxed (for example, when engaged in complex problem solving) or fatigued, they are less able to override reflexive responses.

Research shows that conscious attempts to suppress bias are more effective at inhibiting some prejudiced behaviours compared than others. It is easier, for example, to control verbal responses than nonverbal behaviours (tone of voice, body language, facial expressions) or mental judgements. Subtle bias can ‘leak out’ during our exchanges with diverse others. Prejudiced cues can have a negative impact on our interactions by decreasing openness and trust.

Individual differences in the motivation to respond without prejudice

The desire to respond without prejudice is motivated by two sources: some people are ‘internally’ motivated by internalised egalitarian values, whereas others are ‘externally’ motivated to respond without prejudice because they want to avoid social disapproval or legal ramifications, or because they are seeking to achieve their personal or business goals.

Research shows that the source of motivation to respond without prejudice affects the ability to override unconscious bias. Internally motivated individuals are the most effective at inhibiting stereotypes and responding without prejudice. They experience feelings of guilt or self-criticism when they notice their own bias. These emotions motivate the intentional regulation of prejudiced thoughts and behaviours.

In contrast, when individuals with an externalised motivation to respond without prejudice are made aware that they are violating societal standards, they might become annoyed or angry at outgroup members. This can worsen intergroup relations.

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Felicity Menzies is CEO and Principal Consultant at Include-Empower.Com, a diversity and inclusion consultancy with expertise in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, cultural intelligence and inclusion, gender equity, empowering diverse talent. Felicity is an accredited facilitator with the Cultural Intelligence Centre and the author of A World of Difference. Felicity has over 15 years of experience working with and managing diverse workforces in blue chip companies and is a Fellow of Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand. Felicity also holds a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.