Published 25 August, 2020

What You Should Know About
Unconscious Bias (5 minutes read)

No matter who you are, you are prey to unconscious biases. Unconscious biases are attitudes and stereotypes accumulated throughout life that can influence our decision making, particularly when something needs to be decided quickly. These biases often lead to inaccurate assessments based on faulty rationale.


If it remains unchecked, it can result into a narrow pool of candidates being hired and promoted, as well as with limited creativity, diversity, and inclusivity in the workplace. Unconscious bias can also affect collaboration between employees and prevent innovation and productivity. As these biases are typically outside our awareness, it can inadvertently affect who is selected for an interview, how interviews are conducted, who is hired and our reasons for hiring them.


To be part of a complex, diverse team you must take steps to overcome implicit and explicit biases and reject social stereotypes. Understanding you own bias, whether conscious or unconscious, is the key. The first step in combating these biases is to be aware of various types of biases in order to recognize these attitudes and how they are expressed in our behavior.


Types of Unconscious Bias

Biases that result from making assumptions


  1. Gender Bias: Gender bias exists whenever you treat people differently simply because of their sex. Signs of gender bias in the workplace include unequal pay for men and women or even talking differently with men and women in business situations

Example: John talks to his female direct reports differently than he talks to his male ones


  1. Performance Bias: It happens when you make assumptions of someone’s performance based on characteristics like race or gender. This usually happens when you are comparing a dominant social group to a less dominant social group i.e. like when you compare between a white person and a black.

Example: Rachel assumes her boss is playing favourites because he promoted someone of his own ethnic background.


  1. Value Attribution Bias: Whether you encounter anything new or you come across someone, you unconsciously assign a value to it and whenever you assign a value to it, then it changes your perception of any subsequent interactions with the person.

Example: Arpita thinks an interview candidate is lazy because he looks sleepy.


  1. Diagnosis Bias: It goes hand in hand with value attribution bias. It happens when you label people based on first impressions and never change these opinions even when later evidence contradicts the initial diagnosis.

Example: Rohan thinks Margaret is unreliable because when they first met, Margaret missed a meeting.



Seeking confirmation of our biases

This occurs when the person performing the data analysis wants to prove a predetermined assumption. For example, imagine that a person holds a belief that left-handed people are more creative than right-handed people. Whenever this person encounters a person that is both left-handed and creative, they place greater importance on this "evidence" that supports what they already believe.


  1. Stereotype threat: It happens when you unconsciously confirm negative stereotypes about your own racial, ethnic, gender or cultural group. In workplace stereotype threats can prevent people from applying for job or asking for promotions.

Example: Randy performs badly on a math quiz after hearing Barry say that girls aren’t good at math.


  1. Confirmation Bias: Confirmation bias, the tendency to process information by looking for, or interpreting, information that is consistent with one's existing beliefs. This biased approach to decision making is largely unintentional and often results in ignoring inconsistent information.

Example: For her research report Megha only interviews experts who agree with her perspectives.


  1. Commitment Confirmation Bias: The commitment bias explains that we tend towards being consistent with our prior commitments, actions, thoughts and dispositions, even when it is against our own interests. As a by product of confirmation bias, we rarely seek out disconfirming evidence of what we believe.


Being aware of the confirmation biases can stop you from being a prisoner of your own assumptions and help you stay open to other ideas.


Biases that arise from fixation

  1. Attentional Bias: When you choose to pay attention to some things and ignore others in making a decision. When you are choosing between options it’s important to consider all the possibilities, but sometimes you are stuck to only few options. This type of bias could be influenced by your emotional state.

Example: Insurance companies use this bias to their advantage, when they use disasters in their commercials, the fear of the terrible disaster often overwhelms the fact that rationally that disaster is much unlikely to happen.


  1. Anchoring Bias: Anchoring or focalism is a cognitive bias where an individual depends too heavily on an initial piece of information offered (considered to be the "anchor") to make subsequent judgments during decision making. People often rely too heavily on the first piece of information they learn and that can influence their decision inappropriately.

Example: You find this in salary negotiations. Research has shown that whoever makes the first offer has the edge, because the anchoring effect makes that number the starting point for all of other negotiations.


  1. Primacy Bias: Sometimes, people judge something by only what has happened at first, which is known as primacy bias. In simplest terms, the primacy bias refers to the tendency to recall information presented at the start of a list better than information at the middle or end. This is a cognitive bias that is believed to relate to the tendency to rehearse and relate memory storage systems.

Example, when patients were asked to recall information from a doctor's visit, they remembered just over 50% of what was told to them, but that information usually included what was told to them first.


  1. Recency Bias: Here, people judge from what has happened recently. Recency bias is a cognitive bias that favors recent events over historic ones. A memory bias, recency bias gives "greater importance to the most recent event", such as the final lawyer's closing argument a jury hears before being dismissed to deliberate.


Example, in the absence of a reliable performance evaluation process, employees’ ratings are mostly decided by what they did 2-3 months prior to the appraisal exercise.


Keeping an eye on your fixations can help you to keep your mind open to other possibilities when you make decisions.


How To Counter Unconscious Bias,:

Organizations need to communicate and educate their workforce about unconscious bias especially people in decision making positions like hiring managers, HR managers, Procurement Managers, Team Managers etc. Few useful practices are listed below

  • Slow down your thinking, decisions and processes so you can step back and think.
  • Challenge yourself (and others) on people decisions.
  • Build practices into your decision-making processes to counter unconscious bias, such as psychometric assessments and diverse selection panels during the hiring process.


When you challenge your unconscious biases and think things through instead, you have a much better chance to make good decision for yourself and your company, so that you can bring diversity, innovation and productivity to your organization.


If unconscious bias in the workplace is addressed effectively, then organizations can actually build a truly diverse workforce.

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