Updated: Dec 20, 2021
Note: We're exploring specific, individual biases, how they show up in our lives/workplaces, and what we can do about it. Check out the full list at the bottom of this blog.
We should all be clapping. I'm biased. You're biased. If you have a brain, you have bias. It's part of being human.
We need to remove the stigma from the word bias. Currently it's an accusation - YOU'RE BIASED.
Well, guess what? Everyone is. It's just how our brain works. Why?
Our brain is constantly trying to solve four problems:
There's too much information coming in (so we only recognise what we need to)
There's too much to remember (so we try to remember important things)
There's not enough meaning (so we fill in the gaps)
There's not enough time (so we act fast with the information we have)
Think about it. We can’t possibly analyse all the information we’re taking in. We don’t have the attention span, bandwidth or time to do that. So we make mental shortcuts.
These shortcuts create associations, fill in gaps, and draw meaning based on our previous experiences or priming. All this happens in milliseconds.
Biases assist us in making quick decisions and responses. But this becomes a tendency to respond in a particular way - to people, ideas, and things.
We feel or show inclination or prejudice for or against someone or something based on real or perceived information. And this is bias in action.
Bias is not an accusation
Here's a great quote from Yassmin Abdel-Magied's powerful TedTalk What does my headscarf mean to you?:
Let me just set something out from the outset: Unconscious bias is not the same as conscious discrimination. I'm not saying that in all of you, there's a secret sexist or racist or ageist lurking within, waiting to get out. That's not what I'm saying. We all have our biases. They're the filters through which we see the world around us. I'm not accusing anyone, bias is not an accusation. Rather, it's something that has to be identified, acknowledged and mitigated against. Bias can be about race, it can be about gender. It can also be about class, education, disability. The fact is, we all have biases against what's different, what's different to our social norms. The thing is, if we want to live in a world where the circumstances of your birth do not dictate your future and where equal opportunity is ubiquitous, then each and every one of us has a role to play in making sure unconscious bias does not determine our lives.
Of two minds: Automatic and considered
We'd probably all like to think we're logical, considered, reasoned beings. Unfortunately, that's just not the case. Mostly because we don't have the energy or time to be that way.
In his critically acclaimed book, Thinking: Fast and Slow, author and psychologist Daniel Kahneman explores the way we think. He coined the terms System 1 and System 2 to describe our automatic, unconscious thinking vs our considered, analytical thinking.
System 1: unconscious, fast, easy, automatic, intuitive, emotional, 'gut responses'
System 2: conscious, slow, effortful, logical, analytical, considered
And how much time is spent in each? We'd love to hear that we spend time in System 2 - rationally analysing and making great decisions. In fact, over 90% of the time we're completely operating on intuition and unconscious System 1 thinking. Leaving only 5-10% of our time in our logical System 2.
Jonathan Haidt describes this using a metaphor about an elephant and its rider.
System 1 is like the elephant. It goes where it wants and is focused on instant gratification. The rider (system 2) is smaller than the elephant and appears to be in charge. However, it's trying to control a six tonne elephant! It's not likely to be very successful at being in charge.
Here's a quick and informative 3-minute video on this.
System 1 and System 2 examples
Things can enter your System 1 thinking through biological factors (no one taught us how to smile when happy, it's innate) or through exposure and experience (some estimates say it takes 10,000 hours to move an activity into System 1).
Here's a common one: Have you ever driven home and then not remembered how you got home? It's because you flipped into System 1. You didn't have to consciously think about all the elements of driving, you just did it.
But have you ever taught someone how to drive? Or remember the frustrations when someone taught you?
Queue vivid memories of learning to drive with my dad, not even making it out of the development before stopping the car and getting out to walk home. My poor father.
Needless to say, for a lot of us - it's a terrible experience.
Why? Because every aspect of driving is new - and System 2. It requires a ton of thought, focus, and effort. All while multi-tasking. It's tiring. And you have someone who drives in System 1 who can forget this. Through time and practice though, new drivers become experienced and System 1 takes over more often.
But think about it outside of driving. Ever seen a toddler at the learning stages (dressing themselves, holding cutlery, talking, walking)? It requires so much of their focus and is fully System 2. As adults we move all these activities into our automatic, unconscious mind.
Imagine how much less bandwidth we'd have if we have to put that much effort into all those daily tasks?
But we've also moved a lot of biases - about people, ideas, and things - into our System 1 as well. And this is where we run into trouble.
Our brain needs a lot of energy (consumes about 20% of our body's energy).
Therefore, our brains are always looking for ways to conserve energy.
Biases assist our System 1 in making quick decisions and responses to help us save energy (we don't need to deliberate over every decision).
However, this becomes a tendency to respond in a particular way - to people, ideas, and things.
These tendencies mean there can be inequality and unfairness in how resources and opportunities are distributed.
Conscious bias vs unconscious bias
There are two types of cognitive biases: conscious and unconscious.
A conscious bias is feeling or options and situations, especially those that are preconceived or unreasonable, which are known to us. You are aware of your biases or perceptions.
I have a lot of conscious biases. Like everyone else, I can hear one fact about someone and make a lot of assumptions and stereotypes about that person. Not saying it's right, but I'm definitely aware of them.
I’m consciously biased against anti-vaxxers.
And Trump supporters.
And Pittsburgh Steelers fans.
There's hundreds of things I could list here. So could you.
Unconscious biases are harder to pin down. They're instantaneous feelings or opinions about people and situations which are not known to us.
These come as a result of our individual diversity and experiences - our identity groups, background, personal experiences, societal stereotypes, cultural context, etc. We can internalise the things we see and hear without even realising it. That's the thing about unconscious bias - we don't even know it's there. It's tough stuff to confront and question this.
Stanford University psychologist, Jennifer Eberhardt, has studied bias in detail.
There’s no doubt plenty of overt bigotry exists, but most of us also harbor bias without knowing it. It stems from our brain’s tendency to categorize things—a useful function in a world of infinite stimuli, but one that can lead to discrimination, baseless assumptions, and worse, particularly in times of hurry or stress.
Biases stem from our brain wanting to categorise things into nice, neat boxes. (Refer back up to our brain's four problems). The problem with bias is it quickly can lead to stereotyping and unhelpful assumptions.
In their book Inclusion Nudges Guidebook, authors Tinna Nielsen and Lisa Kapinski note:
In terms of creating a diverse and inclusive culture, the unconscious brain is one of the biggest challenges for organisations and leaders in the 21st century.
Because our unconscious brain relies on these shortcuts and associations. And that doesn't lead to fairness or inclusion.
Back to Yassmin's TEDTalk quote: The thing is, if we want to live in a world where the circumstances of your birth do not dictate your future and where equal opportunity is ubiquitous, then each and every one of us has a role to play in making sure unconscious bias does not determine our lives.
So next time you hear someone exclaim, I'M NOT BIASED, ask them if they have a brain. Then, help them understand what bias is and how it shows up in everyone's lives.
Abdel-Magied, Yassmin. "What does my headscarf mean to you?" filmed December 2014 in South Bank, Australia. TED video, 13:53, https://www.ted.com/talks/yassmin_abdel_magied_what_does_my_headscarf_mean_to_you?language=en
Cherry, Kendra. "What is Cognitive Bias?" Very Well Mind, July 19, 2020.https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-a-cognitive-bias-2794963
Intermark Group. "System 1 Marketing - Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow." YouTube video, 2:22. August 24, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kjH6TS3ZK_s
Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.
Kwong, Emily, host. "Understanding Unconscious Bias." Short Wave (podcast). July 15, 2020. https://www.npr.org/2020/07/14/891140598/understanding-unconscious-bias
Richardson, Michael W. "How much energy does the brain use?" Brainfacts.Org, February 1, 2019. https://www.brainfacts.org/brain-anatomy-and-function/anatomy/2019/how-much-energy-does-the-brain-use-020119
Steiner, Roy. "Understanding Systems of Thinking." Omidyar Network, August 25, 2017. https://medium.com/omidyar-network/understanding-systems-of-thinking-1a5a5c11525d
Tinna Nielsen and Lisa Kapinski, Inclusion Nudges Guidebook: Practical Techniques for Changing Behaviour, Culture & Systems to Mitigate Unconscious Bias and Create Inclusive Organisations. (2nd edition, Createspace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016), 32.
We've been hearing a lot about unconscious bias recently (rightfully so). And we want to make this real and practical for you. There have been over 180 cognitive biases identified. Read the following blogs to explore specific, individual biases, how they show up in our lives/workplaces, and what we can do about it.