Our Unconscious Bias

The brain is capable of processing approximately 11 million bits of information every second but our conscious mind only handles 40 to 50 of them. Cognitive shortcuts help process information, especially if we are tired, hungry or distracted. However, this can be problematic if these shortcuts were formed based on mistakes, misinterpretations, stereotypes or other biased information. Using these shortcuts helps strengthen these neural connections and reinforces potential mistakes and biases. This can have far-reaching consequences from discriminatory hiring practices, poorer healthcare treatment or prejudice in the legal system.

You may be more susceptible to this bias than you might think. As you leave your house, if you feel empathic towards every homeless person it would be easy to feel overwhelmed with guilt. Dehumanisation helps us regulate our emotional responses and prevent us from identifying with suffering and feeling negative ourselves. If you constantly see African Americans committing violent criminal acts in the media, your brain may begin to associate violent criminal behaviour with African Americans. LGBTQ+ people put into question traditional values around male-female gender roles which may lead to a bias of disgust and fear. Elderly people may be passively harmed by being ignored. Prejudices and biases activate a region of the brain called the amygdala associated with a threat response and makes them particularly difficult behaviours to change; it is a basic survival response and is not about being aware or unaware.

One of the most common ways of detecting biases is through the Implication Association Test (IAT). This measures the strength of links between different concepts and words. A typical test might include pictures of black and white faces which need to be assigned descriptors such as angry, clever, good or bad. Whilst not infallible, this test helps detect how we might act in certain situations. From the 630,000 people who have taken the IAT test, a number of unconscious biases in society have been revealed. More than two thirds of participants associate science roles with males and humanities with females. Areas in the US populated by more white people tend to show higher implicit racial bias and greater force used by the police. Pitfalls of this test include that the reliability of the results appear to decline the more times you take it in a sitting. The test has not found to have a lasting impact on attitudes on diversity within corporations. The test may initially help reduce discriminatory behaviour by individuals for up to two weeks after conducting the test but there it no evidence that it leads to long-term change.

The most important thing you can do to tackle your bias is to become aware of your thought patterns in order to regulate them. By putting yourself in someone else’s shoes you are more likely to identify and address bias. For example, in one study nurses who were shown videos of white or black patients in pain recommended the same amount of pain relief regardless of the patient’s race if first asked to imagine how they felt. When not prompted this way, the nurses suggested more relief to white patients. Another way to reduce bias is to increase experience with out-groups (e.g. homeless people). This is known as the contact hypothesis — the more you interact with different groups, the more you can overcome your bias. Alternatively, we can change the way we categorise the world. By default we categorise people according to characteristics like demographic, gender, age and race. Prejudice is the result of categorising people as threatening hence by putting that person in a different category, you would not have the threat response. It is important to recognise that prejudices arise from learned responses and it is thus possible to unlearn them.

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Trying to navigate life.

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