Though research on unconscious bias has existed for decades, the term has become widely used in popular press and in discussions about diversity and inclusion in the past few years. As it has grown in popularity, it has also faced backlash. Some have suggested that unconscious bias doesn’t actually exist and is just an excuse for explicit bias, while others have expressed concern that efforts to address unconscious bias are ineffective. In my work at Paradigm, I find people have a lot of misconceptions about unconscious bias — what it is, what it isn’t, and what we should be doing about it. I answer some of the most commonly asked questions here.
Is unconscious bias real?
Yes. A large body of scientific research dating back to the 1990s indicates that it is. Importantly, acknowledging that unconscious bias is real is not suggesting that explicit bias is not real. (It is.) Nor does the fact that bias can be implicit mean that the negative consequences of such bias are acceptable or unavoidable. (They’re not.) Instead, once we understand unconscious bias, we should work to put strategies in place to mitigate its effects.
So, what is unconscious bias?
To understand unconscious bias, it’s helpful to understand a bit about how our brains work. Our brains are absorbing a massive amount of information every day — about 11 million pieces per second, in fact — and we take mental shortcuts and rely on heuristics to help us sort that information quickly. This can be helpful. If every time we came upon a new situation we had to process all of the information we were perceiving consciously, the burden on our brains would be quite heavy. It’s these mental shortcuts that enable you to know immediately that 2+2=4, for example. (For more on this, I recommend Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.)
While it can be helpful, taking mental shortcuts can also lead us astray. The mental shortcuts we take are guided by patterns in the world around us, including cultural stereotypes. We don’t necessarily have to believe in a stereotype — that is, we don’t need to hold a conscious or explicit bias — for that stereotype to influence how our brain processes information at a subconscious level. (Learn more by taking an Implicit Association Test.) Mere exposure to a stereotype can lead our brains to rely on it when evaluating information. This is unconscious bias.
Can I eliminate unconscious bias?
While you probably can’t get rid of unconscious bias entirely, you can work to reduce it over time, while putting in place immediate strategies to limit its impact.
Reducing bias: You can work to reduce your unconscious biases, and you should. Research suggests that with effort, we can change the stereotypes and prejudices our brains rely on in taking mental shortcuts. Because unconscious bias is shaped by what we observe in the world around us, proactively working to change those images can begin to shift how biases inform our mental shortcuts. For example, mere exposure to people from different backgrounds can affect the biases we hold and change the automatic inferences our brains make.
To reduce bias, then, spend time with people from different backgrounds and expose yourself to counter-stereotypical information. And don’t perpetuate stereotypes yourself — be thoughtful in your own conversations and work, challenging assumptions that might be grounded in stereotypes. Finally, encourage others to work on reducing bias as well. It turns out that believing you can change your stereotypes is important — people who believe prejudice can be reduced are more likely to engage in the types of behaviors that will reduce prejudice.
Limiting its impact: While we can and should work to change the signals we are absorbing and transmitting, the images that dominate movies, song lyrics, and news media can still have an impact. And because our brains take shortcuts based on information we’ve been absorbing over the course of our lives, it’s hard to anticipate at any given time all of the potentially harmful biases that might affect us. To limit the impact of bias, then, we should also invest in controlling it where we can — by putting in place structures, processes, and tools to manage bias and mitigate its effects.
Fortunately, a wealth of research offers insight into specific strategies that can help us manage unconscious bias. At work, for example, we can embed more structure into decision-making processes, like hiring and promotions, to ground these outcomes in objective information. We can prompt ourselves and others to justify important, people-related decisions in writing. And we can put accountability measures in place to spot bias where it might be happening — for example, by reviewing hiring and promotion rates, compensation, performance scores, and employee feedback on a regular basis.
Is unconscious bias the only barrier to diversity and inclusion in organizations?
No. It’s one of many barriers, including explicit bias (structural and individual racism, for example), discrimination, harassment, belonging uncertainty, a lack of psychological safety, and the absence of an inclusive workplace culture, to name a few.
Individuals and organizations working to build more inclusive workforces should identify the barriers affecting their organizations specifically by analyzing quantitative and qualitative data (including hiring funnel data, promotion rates, compensation, performance scores, and employee perceptions of the culture), and should focus their efforts on addressing the most immediate barriers first. Even if they do invest in addressing unconscious bias, that shouldn’t come at the expense of addressing other barriers.
What about unconscious bias training? Does it work?
A handful of recent popular press articles have claimed that research proves unconscious bias training doesn’t work. That’s not quite right. What research does indicate is that (1) traditional diversity and inclusion trainings don’t work, and (2) certain types of messages about stereotypes — for example, telling people that everyone engages in stereotyping without giving people strategies to manage the effects of stereotyping — aren’t helpful and can even backfire.
Of course, not all unconscious bias training is the same. Some trainings may be poorly designed and inconsistent with research, while others may be well-designed, focused not only on raising awareness about unconscious bias but on introducing strategies for managing it. For example, training can educate participants on the benefits of structured interviews and how to conduct them, or it can provide strategies for limiting the effects of bias in team communication. But even the most effective training will not reduce bias or improve outcomes on its own. It’s only by putting these strategies into practice that organizations will see a positive impact. Ultimately, well-designed training should be only one small piece of broader efforts for designing more diverse, inclusive organizations.