Unconscious Bias: Recognised and Managed?

22 June, 2016


Rashda Rana SC, ArbitralWomen President

I want to start with my own sub heading the subliminal message that I want to convey to you today:

“The positive thinker sees the invisible, feels the intangible and achieves the impossible.”


That’s what I want you to be from this day onwards. And why is that important? Because we want to eliminate discrimination, prejudice and bias on the road to equality

We all know and have certainly heard that diversity is an important ingredient in corporate success since it:

  1. Creates greater creativity/reduction of “groupthink”: people’s experiences influence the way they see and resolve problems. Therefore, the more diversified a team is (be it lawyers or the arbitral panel), the more ideas will be presented and the greater the chance will be of obtaining the best possible result;
  2. Improves transparency/corporate governance;
  3. Increases performance, including financial;
  4. Results in greater retention of talents, which is especially important for law firms.

An often quoted study by Forbes, as long ago as 2011, entitled “Global Diversity and Inclusion”[1] found:

“A diverse and inclusive workforce is necessary to drive innovation, foster creativity, and guide business strategies. Multiple voices lead to new ideas, new services, and new products, and encourage out-of-the-box thinking. Today, companies no longer view diversity and inclusion efforts as separate from their other business practices, and recognize that a diverse workforce can differentiate them from their competitors by attracting top talent and capturing new clients.”

So, if greater diversity and inclusivity are such fantastic goals, then why haven’t we leapt to the chance to achieve that goal in super quick time? Certainly for some years now there have been in place diversity awareness programs in many organisations.

2009 review [2] (undertaken over a 5 year period looking at nearly a thousand studies) showed that the effects of most diversity efforts, including training, remain unknown, and a 2006 study looking at data from 708 private companies found that diversity training didn’t produce more diverse workforces. The problem identified as a result is that they weren’t taking into account all of peoples’ responses.

One of the reasons behind why the goal hasn’t been achieved and why there is new thinking about how to improve diversity lies in the concept of unconscious bias, hidden bias, implicit bias. These biases are our “mental shortcuts based on social norms and stereotypes.” (Guynn, 2015). Over the last three decades, our understanding of unconscious bias has evolved. The nature of unconscious bias is well understood, and there is even an instrument (Implicit Association Test) to assess unconscious bias which has been developed and rigorously tested.

A substantial amount of research has been published demonstrating the impact of unconscious bias in various arenas and how bias may be contributing to disparities in various industries.

Here’s what we know:

  • Unconscious biases develop at an early age: biases emerge during middle childhood and appear to develop across childhood (Dore, 2014).
  • Unconscious biases have real world effects on behavior (Dasgupta, 2004).
  • Unconscious biases are malleable, that is, one can take steps to minimize the impact of unconscious bias (Dasgupta, 2013; Dasgupta & Greenwald, 2013).

So what is it and exactly how does it work?

Our brains are hard wired to rapidly categorise people instinctively, and we use the most obvious and visible categories to do this: age, body weight, physical attractiveness, skin colour, gender and disability. But we use many other less visible dimensions such as; accent, social background, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, education, and even job title or organisational department. These categories automatically assign a whole suite of unconscious characteristics, good and bad, to anyone categorised as being from that group. They are automatic and unconscious biases over which we have little control, and they influence everyone, no matter how unbiased we think we may be.

So, your background, personal experiences, societal stereotypes and cultural context can have an impact on your decisions and actions without you realising. Implicit or unconscious bias happens by our brains making incredibly quick judgments and assessments of people and situations without us realising. We may not even be aware of these views and opinions, or be aware of their full impact and implications.

This universal tendency toward unconscious bias exists because bias is rooted in the brain. Scientists have determined that bias is found in the same region of the brain (the amygdala) associated with fear and threat. But bias is also found in other areas of the brain. Stereotyping, a form of bias, is associated with the temporal and frontal lobes. The left temporal lobe of the brain stores general information about people and objects and is the storage place for social stereotypes. The frontal cortex is associated with forming impressions of others, empathy, and reasoning (Henneman, 2014).

In other words, our brain evolved to mentally group things together to help make sense of the world. The brain categorizes all the information it is bombarded with and tags that information with general descriptions it can quickly sort information into. Bias occurs when those categories are tagged with labels like “good” or “bad” and are then applied to entire groups. Unconscious bias can also be caused by conditional learning. For example, if a person has a bad experience with someone they categorize as belonging to a particular group, they often associate that entire group with that bad experience (Venosa, 2015). We’ve most recently been seeing that with the notion that “all Muslims are terrorists.”

From a survival point of view, this mental grouping into good or bad helped the brain make quick decisions about what was safe or not safe and what was appropriate or not appropriate. It was a developed survival mechanism hard-wired into our brains — and this makes it far more difficult to eliminate or minimize than originally thought (Ross, 2008).

To overcome such an invisible, intangible force, sounds like an impossible herculean task on the road to achieving a fairer more equal society. Indeed more than Herculean it sounds like a Sisyphean task, the completion of which is an impossibility. Are we pushing a hard rock uphill only to see it roll backwards before we ever reach the apex? Is it a goal doomed to eternity?

No, I don’t think so. It is not impossible. Because it comes down to belief in a right and a determination to succeed.

Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

Lewis Carroll Alice Through the Looking Glass

It’s true I too have sometimes believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast. If I didn’t, if I couldn’t, then I wouldn’t, I couldn’t keep going with my own belief that equality is achievable and should be pursued. It gives me that determination to succeed in bringing about equality. I want you to visualize that seeming impossible being converted into reality because of your actions.

We’ve probably all come across examples of unconscious bias at play in our everyday personal and professional lives but here are some kooky examples of unconscious bias but all of which could have an equally powerful impact. Studies have found that:

  • blond women’s salaries were 7 percent higher than women who were brunettes or redheads.[3]
  • for every 1 percent increase in a woman’s body mass, there was a .6 percent decrease in family income.[4]
  • “mature-faced” people had a career advantage over “baby-faced” people (people with large, round eyes, high eyebrows and a small chin).[5]
  • male and female scientists — trained to reject the subjective — were more likely to hire men, rank them higher in competency than women, and pay them $4,000 more per year than women (Wilkie, 2015).[6]
  • Tall men in business may find unconscious bias to work in their favor. Fifty-eight percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are just shy of six feet tall, while only 14.5 percent of the male population are that same height. Tall men, then, tend to move into leadership positions far more frequently than their more diminutive counterparts (Price, n.d.). That would mean, for instance, that Napoleon is to be regarded as an atypical member of that group.

But, I don’t even get into that last group being neither tall nor a man and so you can imagine that my chances of getting to CEO are negligible

If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.

Dr. Wayne W. Dyer

‘Feeling’ unconscious bias

I mentioned earlier that various institutions have developed tests for unconscious bias. What they also found was that even the very experience of taking a test of hidden bias may be helpful, many test takers said they could “feel” their hidden prejudices as they performed the tests.

They can feel themselves unable to respond as rapidly to (for example) flower + unpleasant than to and pain + unpleasant. The very act of taking the tests can force hidden biases into the conscious part of the mind so that you become aware of them.

We would like to believe that when a person has a conscious commitment to change, the very act of discovering one’s hidden biases can propel one to act to correct for it. It may not be possible to avoid the automatic stereotype or prejudice, but it is certainly possible to consciously rectify it. Luckily, the mind and the unconscious within it are malleable.

There are more than 150 identified unconscious biases, making the task of rooting them out and addressing them daunting. But, let’s look at a few of the known unconscious biases that directly impact the workplace and what we do and how we work and how we live. They include:

  • Affinity bias: The tendency to warm up to people like ourselves.
  • Halo effect: The tendency to think everything about a person is good because you like that person.
  • Perception bias: The tendency to form stereotypes and assumptions about certain groups that make it impossible to make an objective judgement about members of those groups.
  • Confirmation bias: The tendency for people to seek information that confirms pre-existing beliefs or assumptions.
  • Group think: This bias occurs when people try too hard to fit into a particular group by mimicking others or holding back thoughts and opinions. This causes them to lose part of their identities and causes organizations to lose out on creativity and innovation.

This automatic or implicit bias is largely inevitable and often unrelated to our conscious processes, and so escapes our insight and conscious control. The control of our prejudices is part of the executive function of self-regulation and uses the same limited cognitive resources as our working memory and attention. Self-regulation is thought to take place within the brain’s medial pre-frontal cortex and studies with brain damaged patients have confirmed this. A highly proficient executive function can act as a buffer against the adverse effect of our automatic biases but the executive function is impaired by other cognitive and emotional load.

People are able to exert some control through simple compliance if told not to carry out a prejudiced act, such as declining a job application. Conformity is often motivated by a desire not to be the subject of censure or sanction but also to avoid others seeing them as prejudiced. These ‘costs’ to the individual motivate them to want to manage or change their prejudices.

People may also be motivated to act in an unprejudiced manner based on the ‘moral case’ where the individual is less concerned with the personal costs and more concerned with the egalitarian desire to be unprejudiced across situations.

If people are aware of their hidden biases, they can monitor and attempt to ameliorate hidden attitudes before they are expressed through behavior. This compensation can include attention to language, body language and to the stigmatization felt by target groups.

Common sense and research evidence also suggest that a change in behavior can modify beliefs and attitudes. It would seem logical that a conscious decision to be egalitarian might lead one to widen one’s circle of friends and knowledge of other groups. Such efforts may, over time, reduce the strength of unconscious biases.

It can be easy to reject the results of the tests as “not me” when you first encounter them. But that’s the easy path. To ask where these biases come from, what they mean, and what we can do about them is the harder task.

Recognizing that the problem is in many others — as well as in ourselves — should motivate us all to try both to understand and to act.

What we are looking for is commitment to change from individuals and organizations. Committing to change means looking at things from a different perspective and being aware of things we cannot presently see, that is, the things we are not aware of. By becoming aware of them, we can recognize them as what they are – prejudices, biases and move to managing them by ensuring we do not let them influence us. Turning the unconscious, conscious and then regaining control over our decisions, our responses, our actions, our behaviour.

Unconscious Bias Managed

Much can do done at a personal level to enable us all to recognise, monitor, manage and reduce the impact of our personal biases. Organisations can support this in very practical ways within policies, practices and at key people decision making points.

Some control is achieved through social norms. Where egalitarian values are evident with an organisation’s overt behaviour such as handing out job applications forms or inviting people to interview may be controlled but less overt micro-behaviours such as avoidance, less eye contact and spending less time with the individual may persist.

When venturing into the realm of the unconscious one has to tread very carefully. It is not straightforward. Perversely, asserting a non-bias position actually leads to an increase in the likelihood of prejudiced behaviour in people with low levels of bias (known as the ironic rebound effect).

For those with an external motivation to control, pressure to be non-biased can lead to anger and a feeling of threat which invokes a negative reaction (the ‘backlash effect’). Public pressure to respond without bias leads to greater bias arising from an arousal which invokes the dominant group’s response to act against the minority group and more pronounced stereotyping. This response undermines the ability to act in a more egalitarian fashion. That having been said there is evidence that simply asking someone to be fair can achieve better decision making.

When considering strategies to address unconscious bias one must consider individual and institutional strategies.

Institutional Strategies

All institutions should:

  • Develop concrete, objective indicators & outcomes for hiring, evaluation, and promotion to reduce standard stereotypes (Fiske & Taylor, 1991; Heilman, 2001; Bernat & Manis, 1994)
  • Develop standardized criteria to assess the impact of individual contributions in performance evaluations (Heilman & Haynes, 2005)
  • Develop and utilize structured interviews and develop objective evaluation criteria for hiring (Martell & Guzzo, 1991; Heilman, 2001)
  • Provide unconscious bias training workshops for all constituents

Individual strategies to address unconscious bias include:

  • Promoting self-awareness: recognizing one’s biases using the Implicit Association Test (or other instruments to assess bias) is the first step.
  • Understanding the nature of bias is also essential. The strategy of categorization that gives rise to unconscious bias is a normal aspect of human cognition. Understanding this important concept can help individuals approach their own biases in a more informed and open way (Burgess, 2007).
  • Opportunities to have discussions, with others (especially those from socially dissimilar groups) can also be helpful. Sharing your biases can help others feel more secure about exploring their own biases. It’s important to have these conversations in a safe space-individuals must be open to alternative perspectives and viewpoints. This means developing the vocabulary for that discussion to take place
  • Facilitated discussions and training sessions promoting bias literacy utilizing the concepts and techniques listed about have been proven effective in minimizing bias. Evidence suggests that providing unconscious bias training for faculty members reduces the impact of bias in the workplace (Carnes, 2012).

Why am I interested in this and why should it be important to you? I believe and this is what lies at the heart of ArbitralWomen that true equality is as much about attitude as it is about actions. The next generation of women deserve to come into a workplace where the role models who came before them forged a path, and fought to change the attitudes and cultures that held them back.

If you are standing on the podium, with a successful career behind you and accolades galore then you are the living proof that women can succeed. Don’t use your platform to stand up and tell other women that they can’t because the odds are stacked against them and they’ll never achieve true parity. Battling a hidden demon sounds daunting and nigh on impossible a task to achieve. BUT,

Life is full of challenges some of which we are able to meet head on and others which largely lie hidden but show themselves in all their ugliness in nonverbal behaviour. We should shy away from tackling both kinds the explicit and the implicit, the conscious and unconscious, the deliberate and automatic. The impossible can become possible.

Ultimately, in one form or another, they all require us to challenge the status quo and that’s what I urge you to think about and do form this day on.

“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything”.

George Bernard Shaw

In order to progress in society, in order to bring about the changes we’ve talked about today, we need to change our minds, deliberately, actively by being alert to and aware of our biases and acting to control them.

I want to leave you with the same point at which I started and that is thinking about getting over the notion that some things are just impossible and not capable of being changed with the wise words of a civil rights activist who was otherwise generally known as The Greatest:

“Impossible is just a small word that is thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in a world they’ve been given to explore the power they have, than to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It is an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It is a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing!”

Muhammad Ali

[1] Available at: http://www.forbes.com/forbesinsights/innovation_diversity/, consulted on January 27, 2016.

[2] Prejudice Reduction: What Works? A Review and Assessment of Research and Practice, Annu. Rev. Psychol. 2009. 60:339–67, by Elizabeth Levy Paluck (Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University) and Donald P. Green  (Institution for Social and Policy Studies, Yale University).

[3]  Queensland University

[4]  National Bureau of Economic Research

[5]  Duke University

[6]   Yale University