Everyone has bias

It is time to challenge your unconscious bias. Have you ever met someone and directly felt like they could become your new best friend? Have you ever made assumptions and formed an opinion about people just based on a photograph or stories you heard? Do you trust your gut feeling when you make decisions about a job candidate?

We all have unconscious patterns that help us make sense of the world and form decisions. Without these, we would be pretty lost. We can’t take in and process ALL the information around us. Scientist estimated that we are exposed to up to 11 million pieces of information and any one time. But our brains can only functionally deal with around 40.[1]

So, what our brain does is to filter all the information and only let through what we need based on our perceptions, interpretations, preferences and biases. These filters are absolutely necessary for us to be able to operate, make decisions, stay focussed, listen to others in a room full of people and even concentrate on conversations. One important thing to note here though is, that all our filters are subjective and unique to us. We see, hear and process experiences differently than others might.[2]

So what exactly is a bias?

A Bias is a natural preference towards or against something. It can also be defined as thinking shortcuts. It is a decision-making process that is rooted deeply in the natural survival mechanisms of our species. Because we are exposed to so much information, we need to rely on our brain to quickly make decisions for us unconsciously based on our preferences and experiences. It is really helpful, as it allows us to assess every situation within seconds, for example, to understand if we are safe or not. So, when we enter a room full of people, our brain is quickly going to scan the group and assess the situation based on our biases: Do we see familiar faces? Does anyone look like a threat? Or can I enter the room and be safe? 

Therefore, we judge others within the first few seconds that we meet them to quickly understand how we fit in and whether they impose a threat.[3]

We all have these biases based on our experiences, upbringing, education and exposure to media. Biases start to form when we are young children based on what we observe and learn from our parents.

Most bias is harmless. In fact, we need bias to function as a human being. Some examples for bias can be that people have a preference for a specific colour, a meal or cuisines, for their favourite clothes, who we choose to live with, who we choose as our friends or partners.[4] 

We all react differently to the people we see and meet. That is not a problem. BUT bias becomes problematic if it causes us to treat people and groups differently and discriminate others based on our model of the world.

Types of Bias

We form biases towards almost everything in life. For this article, I will focus on our bias towards other human beings.

Throughout our lives, we develop biases towards gender, sexuality, age, race, disability, religion, education and social classes, to name a few.

There are many types of bias referenced in the literature. Here are two examples of cognitive bias that you might recognise in yourself:

Affinity Bias: We look for people who are like us and think like us. Driven by the feeling that people like us are easier to work or get along with.

Confirmation Bias: We look for evidence that confirms what we already think is right, and we discount or ignore any piece of evidence that seems to support an alternate view.

Research shows that affinity bias is very common. We use different parts of our brains to deal with people who are more similar to us and people who are different. We judge people just within seconds of meeting them and decide whether we trust them or not, purely based on facial features, appearances or body language. Even if we are fully committed to diversity and consciously drive change, we still have the biases instilled in us that can influence our judgement.[5]

Let’s talk about the hidden elephant in the room: Unconscious Bias

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, most of our bias is unconscious. And not all unconscious bias is problematic. But when it leads to behaviours and actions that discriminate others, it becomes an issue. These actions and behaviours can result in mistreating others. It can take place in a wide range of situations from hiring and promotions, opportunities in schools, housing options to hateful acts and crimes.

Examples in the working world could be that you only trust people to take on the next big assignment that are similar to you based on gender or race. Or job candidates with foreign-sounding names do not even get invited to an interview because you dismiss them unconsciously. And another one might be that young mothers get overlooked for a promotion because they are not deemed reliable.

It also might be that you feel uncomfortable in certain groups and environments, maybe when you meet a disabled person or people from another culture. And as a result, you avoid these situations altogether or avoid engaging with those groups.

Unconscious bias leads to unfair conditions, and it does not provide an even playing field.

Of course, I must mention at this point, that there are people who consciously decide to mistreat others, hate, act hurtful or use violence. And these people need to be addressed as well. However, in this article, I want to focus on unconscious bias as this is something that affects all of us, and we all can do our part to reduce the negative effect it has on others. 

If we do not realise that our subjective pre-assumptions drive us, it is nearly impossible to change anything about it – until we decide to uncover and challenge our bias.

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What can you do to uncover and reduce the negative impact of unconscious bias?

1) Acknowledge your bias

The first step is to accept and acknowledge that you have unconscious biases. We all do! Not all bias is bad, and it is nothing to feel guilty about. However, it can harm others, even if it is not your intention. Start to own this and start the conversations. The more we all learn to open up about this topic and remove the shame attached to it, we can begin to address our bias and create change.

2) Educate yourself

There is a lot of literature out there that covers bias and unconcise bias. Read up on the different types of bias and examples. Then start to reflect whether any of those might be true for you.

3) Spot your bias

To identify your unconscious bias, you need to become more self-aware and regularly reflect on your behaviours and actions. Are they in alignment with your values? 

The best way to spot your unconscious bias is by challenging your actions. You could ask yourself the following:

  • Do you exclude certain people from discussions? 
  • Why did you choose to sit next to that person? 
  • Why did you decide to hire this candidate? 
  • Who are the people you spend most of your time with? 
  • Who are the people you ask for advice?
  • Do you feel uncomfortable when you are surrounded by certain people or groups?
4) Challenge your bias

We have bias towards our bias. We do not like to be challenged, and we will unconsciously automatically look for experiences and stories that will reconfirm our bias and ignore anything that contradicts them.

Watch out for that pattern and ensure you:

5) Widen your focus

Most unconscious bias forms because we do not know better or because we actually have not experienced other cultures, minorities or exposed ourselves to a diverse group of people. The more you can learn, the more positive you will feel towards other individuals or a particular group of people. As humans, we fear the unknown. That fear drives us to think, behave and act in a certain way. But fear is a terrible driver. Help yourself uncover the unknown, so you learn that there is nothing to be scared of.

Check-in with yourself: Are you regularly exposing yourself to new resources, media, new people and groups?

Perhaps join a new group/ community, read books, travel, talk to people…there are so many opportunities to learn and familiarise yourself with whatever seems foreign to you.

6) Refrain from judgment

Be very aware of the first seconds you meet someone new. Your brain will automatically judge the other person. Make sure you challenge your own judgment. An excellent way to overcome this is to approach new situations and people with curiosity. Try to learn and listen first. Try to learn more about the person, their interest, their hobbies. Be curious but don’t let your view of the world form judgement.

It can be challenging to rewire our brain and change our automatic patterns. As I explained at the beginning of this article, those automated decision-making processes are essential to stay safe and make sense of the world and the flood of information. But the more awareness you bring to your patterns, the more choice you will have.

You might not be able to stop your automatic thought processes and therefore stop the first thought. But you have the power to change the second thought and your behaviour and actions. 

We must start to become more aware and more self-reflective. Then we can begin to make small changes. It is going to be uncomfortable, but only if we get comfortable with the uncomfortable, we get to create change. And it starts with you and me.

Watch my 3 part video series on Unconscious Bias on Youtube.


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Anne is a Leadership Coach, Lecturer and Speaker that works with individuals and organisations to empower leaders to inspire others and create impact. Through my work, I equip individuals with the key skills needed to become Courageous Leaders that embrace their unique strengths, celebrate diversity and take action outside their comfort zone. 

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[1] H. Ross (2018), Proven Strategies for Addressing Unconscious Bias in the Workplace, CDO Insights, Volume 2 issue 5, August 2018

[2] H. Ross (2018), Proven Strategies for Addressing Unconscious Bias in the Workplace, CDO Insights, Volume 2 issue 5, August 2018

[3] Checking your blind spot: ways to find and fix unconscious bias, AESC’s Executive Talent Magazine: Issue 14, https://www.aesc.org/insights/magazine/article/checking-your-blind-spots

[4] Checking your blind spot: ways to find and fix unconscious bias, AESC’s Executive Talent Magazine: Issue 14, https://www.aesc.org/insights/magazine/article/checking-your-blind-spots) (L. Kelly (2018): How to check your unconscious biases, folio.com, May 1 2018

[5] Green, M. (2013): Take five: tips for uncovering bias