Unconscious or implicit bias refers to beliefs or attitudes that are activated automatically and without an individual’s awareness. These hidden biases are different from beliefs and attitudes that individuals are aware they hold but choose to conceal for the purposes of complying with social or legal norms.
Our unconscious social biases form involuntarily from our experiences. For example, as we are repeatedly exposed to actual incidences or media portrayals of females as collaborative, nurturing and homemakers, and men as assertive, competitive, and bread-winners, those associations become automated in our long-term memory. These biases are reinforced on a daily basis without us knowing, or thinking consciously about it. Stereotypes reflect what we see and hear every day, not what we consciously believe about what we see and hear. It is possible for us to hold unconscious stereotypes that we consciously oppose.
Because we are, by definition, unaware of our automatic, unconscious beliefs and attitudes, we believe we are acting in accordance with our conscious intentions, when in fact our unconscious is in the driver’s seat. It is possible for us to treat others unfairly even when we believe it is wrong to do so. Cognitive neuroscience research has taught us that most decisions we make, especially regarding people, are “alarmingly contaminated” by our biases. Our assessments of others are never as objective as we believe them to be.
Unconscious bias at work has profound implications—when we make decisions on who gets a job, who gets disciplined or promoted, who we chose to develop, or who we see as a confidant or as a suitable mentee, whose ideas we give consideration to, we may be adding our own subliminal and emotional criteria to that decision. Criteria we might not even be aware of and which may have no basis in facts. Bias can also contribute to hostile workplaces, bullying, and discrimination. Unconscious bias in recruitment, selection, promotion, development, and everyday workplace interaction limits the strategic potential that can flow from a diverse workforce for higher-quality problem solving and decision making, innovation and creativity, accessing diverse customers and suppliers, and attracting and energising top global talent.
Not surprisingly, organisations invest heavily in training programs designed to reduce unconscious bias. However, skeptics argue that bias training is ineffective, pointing to studies that report nil or even a negative impact from unconscious bias training. Although research into the efficacy of unconscious bias training is mixed, this is not surprising, given the range of variables that can influence training outcomes such as facilitator expertise and experience, mode of delivery, length and program design.
In a recent review of the research, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (UK) concluded that sophisticated unconscious bias training programs, combining awareness of unconscious bias, concern about its effects, and the use of tools to reduce bias, can reduce unconscious bias up to eight weeks post-intervention. Nevertheless, the authors caution that while unconscious bias training can be effective in reducing implicit bias, these biases are unlikely to be completely eradicated and training investment must be supplemented with changes (perhaps even a complete overhaul) to organisational structures, policies and procedures.
In sum, the research into unconscious bias training highlights two important considerations (i) unconscious bias training is necessary, but in itself not sufficient, for eliminating workplace bias and (ii) some unconscious bias training programs are more effective than others. Specifically, unconscious bias training is most effective when it: (i) incorporates bias awareness, or ‘a-ha’, activities and (ii) transfers evidence-based bias reduction and mitigation strategies.
‘A-ha’ Activities for Bias Awareness
Effective unconscious bias training activities ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’. Incorporating ‘a-ha’ activities that allow individuals to discover their biases in a non-confrontational manner is more powerful than presenting evidence of bias in employment or laboratory studies. Stereotypes and prejudices are maintained and reinforced by powerful cognitive and motivational biases that act to filter out information that contradicts or challenges our preexisting beliefs or attitudes. We all see bias vested in others but rarely see or admit our own biases. A-ha activities help participants to see how their subconscious preferences and beliefs drive their responses.
Cognitive dissonance refers to the uncomfortable emotional state experienced when individuals are made aware of an inconsistency in their beliefs, attitudes, or behaviours. Research indicates that when egalitarian values are central to an individual’s self-concept, highlighting an inconsistency between the individual’s anti-prejudice values and their biased responses is effective at evoking dissonance. In turn, dissonance motivates the individual to make conscious adjustments to their attitudes (reduction in prejudice) and behaviours (less discrimination) such that they better align with their explicit values of tolerance and equality.
(i) Implicit Association Test
A proven technique for enhancing awareness of one’s unconscious bias is the Implicit Association Test (IAT). This test measures the reaction time of individuals to a series of words or pictures presented on a computer screen. For example, the individual may be asked to type a particular key if the word presented on the screen is a ‘female name’ or a ‘weak word’ (e.g., delicate, small, flower) and a different key if the word is a ‘male name’ or a ‘strong word’ (e.g., powerful, mighty, robust). This activity is repeated numerous times and the average reaction time for a correct response is recorded.
Following this, the rules are changed such that the test taker is asked to press one key if the word is a ‘female name’ or a ‘strong word’, and a different key if the word is a ‘male name’ or a ‘weak word’. Because gender stereotyping associates female names with weak words, and male names with strong words, reaction times on the first test are relatively faster compared to the reaction times under the conditions of the second test involving a mismatch of stereotypical categories. Differential reaction times are evidence of implicit (unconscious) gender bias, and the greater the difference in reaction times between the two tests, the greater are those implicit stereotypical associations.
Anonymous IAT tests administered by Harvard University are publicly available at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html. Over a million people have taken those tests, and results confirm that participants across a range of locations, ages, genders, races, and ethnicities hold unconscious stereotypes and prejudices regarding disability, sexual orientation, race, skin tone, age, weight, gender, ethnicity, and religion.
Practitioners should be aware, however, that there have been varied results from the use of this tool in real-world settings. Problems may arise because the theory behind the IAT is difficult to understand and participants may misinterpret the results…leading to confusion, shock, anger, and defensiveness.
When the IAT is used as an intervention tool, it is important that the facilitator is knowledgeable in the mechanisms of the IAT and adequately explains to participants that bias is inevitable as a result of social conditioning and cognitive processes—the results do not show evidence or make accusations of prejudice. Rather, the facilitator must stress that exercise is undertaken to highlight the existence of hidden bias and that, contrary to our conscious intentions, we all hold hidden biases that manifest in subtle and unconscious ways.
In addition to the IAT test, there are some other activities grounded in social psychological theory that can be incorporated into unconscious bias training.
(ii) The Tag Game
One example is the Tag Game, adapted from Fowler (2006). In this exercise, participants stick badges, in a variety of shapes, colours, and sizes, somewhere between their waist and neck. Participants are then instructed to form groups without talking. There are no instructions given as to what criteria to use to form the groups. Once formed, the participants are instructed to break up and form into new groups. This is repeated at least four times. Participants will normally form groups based on shapes, colours, or sizes. Rarely do the participants look beyond the badges, and even less rarely do they intentionally form diverse groups in which many shapes, colours, and sizes are represented.
This powerful yet non-confrontational activity leads well into a discussion about social categorisation processes, the automaticity of “us” vs “them” categorisations, and in group bias (also known as affinity bias). It is also an excellent exercise for introducing the concept of diversity and the potential benefits of diverse workgroups. Group discussions following the exercise explore diversity experiences (or lack thereof) in the workplace, and prompt participants to suggest ways to improve the recognition, support, and value of diverse perspectives and experiences.
(iii) The Father-Son Activity
Another useful awareness activity for unconscious bias training taken from the social psychological literature is the Father/Son activity, adapted from Pendry, Driscoll, & Field (2007). In this activity, participants are instructed to solve the following problem:
“A father and son were involved in a car accident in which the father was killed and the son was seriously injured. The father was pronounced dead at the scene of the accident and his body was taken to a local morgue. The son was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital and was immediately wheeled into an emergency operating room. A surgeon was called. Upon arrival and seeing the patient, the attending surgeon exclaimed “Oh my God, it’s my son!’ Can you explain this?”
Around 40% of participants who are faced with this challenge do not think of the most plausible answer—being the surgeon is the boy’s mother. Rather, readers invent elaborate stories such as the boy was adopted and the surgeon was his natural father or the father in the car was a priest. As such, the exercise illustrates the powerful pull of automatic, stereotyped associations. For some individuals, the association between surgeon and men is so strong that it interferes with problem-solving and making accurate judgments.
This exercise leads well into an ensuing discussion on the automaticity of stereotypes and the distinction between explicit and implicit bias. From here, the discussion can move to explore ways of controlling or overcoming automatic bias. Also, because some of the participants will solve the problem with the most plausible reason, the exercise highlights individual differences in stereotyping and opens a discussion into why stereotypes differ across individuals.
(iv) The Circle of Trust
The Circle of Trust is a powerful exercise for demonstrating the effect of affinity bias. In this exercise, participants are instructed to write down in a column on the left-hand side of a blank piece of paper the initials of six to ten people whom they trust the most who are not family members. The facilitator then reads out some diversity dimensions including gender, nationality, native language, accent, age, race/ ethnicity, professional background, religion, etc., and participants are instructed to place a tick beside those members of their trusted circle who are similar in that dimension to them. For example, male participants will place a tick beside all men in their trusted six, white participants will place a tick beside all white individuals in their trusted six etc. Participants discover that their trusted six often displays minimal diversity – for most participants, their inner circle include people with backgrounds similar to their own.
The facilitator explains that this tendency or preference for people like ourselves is called affinity or ingroup bias and is well-researched. Studies show that, in general, people extend not only greater trust, but also greater positive regard, cooperation, and empathy to ingroup members compared with outgroup members. This preference for people like ourselves is largely instinctive and unconscious. Affinity bias manifests not only as a preference for ingroup members — but it may also manifest as an aversive tendency towards outgroup members. For example, we are more likely to withhold praise or rewards from outgroup members.
Participants are then prompted to consider the implications of this for the workplace? For example, as leaders, when they assign responsibility for a high-profile piece of work, to whom do they entrust that responsibility? The facilitator suggests that participants will likely offer opportunities to those individuals whom they trust the most. Those people, it turns out, are people who are similar to themselves. Now, because success on high-profile assignments is critical for emerging as a leader, a tendency to favour people like ourselves when assigning stretch assignments leads to self-cloning and promotes homogeneity in leadership. Though not intentional, people who are not like us get overlooked and left behind.
Although we believe we are making objective assessments of merit and treating people fairly, hidden preferences for people like ourselves can cause us to support the development and career progression of some people over others without us even knowing we are doing so. Regarding employment, affinity bias can compel people to favour those who are most similar to themselves, thereby leading to a tendency for leaders, people managers or recruiting managers to hire, promote, or otherwise esteem those who mirror attributes or qualities that align with their own. Moreover, we are also very good at justifying our biases. Studies show that we exhibit a systematic tendency to claim that the strengths of ingroup candidates are more important selection criteria than are the strengths of candidates with backgrounds different from our own.
Affinity bias can also lead us to actively solicit, pay greater attention to and to favour the contributions of ingroup members over outgroup members. We are also more likely to mentor or sponsor ingroup members compared with outgroup members.
In some groups, there may be certain individuals with a diverse inner circle. The facilitator encourages participants to think about how an individual’s experiences could disrupt affinity bias with the ensuing discussion drawing on intergroup research supporting intergroup friendship as a prejudice reduction technique.
Moving from Awareness to Action
As a stand-alone initiative, awareness programs are rarely effective tools for reducing bias. Fortunately, the social psychological literature provides us with some proven techniques for dismantling social categorisations and overriding bias. For more information, subscribe to next month’s newsletter here and look for the article titled ‘How Effective is Your Unconscious Bias Training? Part 2 of 2: The SPACE2 Model of Bias Mitigation.