What Is Unconscious Bias? | Definition & Examples
Unconscious bias refers to the automatic associations and reactions that arise when we encounter a person or group. Instead of maintaining neutrality, we tend to associate positive or negative stereotypes with certain groups and let these biases influence our behavior towards them.
Unconscious bias can lead to discriminatory behavior in healthcare, the workplace, educational settings, and beyond.
What is unconscious bias?
Unconscious bias is an implicit preference for (or aversion towards) a particular person or entity. These feelings can be either positive or negative, but they cause us to act unfairly towards others. This can manifest as affinity bias, or the tendency to favor people who are similar to us, but any identity-based aspect (e.g., age, gender identity, socioeconomic background, etc.) can be the target of unconscious bias.
We are, by definition, unaware of biases that affect our decisions and judgments: this is why they are called unconscious. For example, when most people hear the word “nurse,” they are more likely to picture a female, even if they don’t consciously believe that only women can be nurses. Because unconscious bias operates below our awareness, it can be challenging to acknowledge and manage.
What causes unconscious bias?
There are several factors at play within our unconscious biases:
- Brain categorization. Humans have a natural tendency to assign everything into a relevant category. This happens unconsciously, but this categorizing also leads us to assign a positive or negative association to each category. Categories allow our brains to know what to do or how to behave, but classifications often cause us to overgeneralize.
- We rely on heuristics. We often rely on “automatic” information processing to go through our day, involving little conscious thought. These mental shortcuts allow us to exert little mental effort in our everyday lives, and make swift judgments when needed.
- Social and cultural dynamics. Our upbringing and social environment, as well as any direct and indirect experiences with members of various social groups, imprint on us. These shape our perceptions, both consciously and subconsciously.
Unconscious vs. explicit bias
Both unconscious and explicit bias involve judging others based on our assumptions rather than objective facts. However, the two are actually quite different.
- Unconscious bias occurs when we have an inclination for or against a person or group that emerges automatically.
- Explicit bias includes positive or negative attitudes that we are fully aware of and openly express. These attitudes form part of our worldview.
Despite their differences, unconscious bias can be just as problematic as explicit bias. Both can lead to discriminatory behavior.
Unconscious bias examples
Unconscious bias can lead to discriminatory behavior when it comes to hiring a diverse workforce.
How to reduce unconscious bias
Both positive and negative unconscious beliefs operate outside our awareness and can lead to structural and systemic inequalities. If we want to reduce it, we must first become conscious of it. The following strategies can help:
- Taking the Harvard Implicit Bias Association Test (IAT) can help you realize that everyone, including you, has implicit or unconscious biases. Recognising them for what they are increases the likelihood that next time you won’t let these hidden biases affect your behaviour.
- Seek out positive intergroup contact. Unconscious bias towards a particular group can be reduced through interaction with members of that group. For example, you can make it a point to engage in activities that include individuals from diverse backgrounds.
- Counter-stereotyping. Exposure to information that defies persistent stereotypes about certain groups, such as images of male nurses, can counter gender-based stereotypes.
- Unconscious bias training. Although raising awareness is important, it’s not sufficient to overcome unconscious biases. The most successful training programs are ones that allow individuals to discover their biases in a non-confrontational manner, helping them seek out the tools to help reduce and manage these biases.
Other types of research bias
Frequently asked questions about unconscious bias
- What is implicit bias?
- What is similarity bias?
Similarity bias or affinity bias is a type of unconscious bias. It occurs when we show preference for people who are similar to us (i.e., people with whom we share a common attribute, such as physical appearance, hobbies, or educational background).
- What is the opposite of explicit bias?
- Why do demand characteristics matter in research?
These cues may nudge participants to consciously or unconsciously change their responses, and they pose a threat to both internal and external validity. You can’t be sure that your independent variable manipulation worked, or that your findings can be applied to other people or settings.
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