Mastering choice: Recognise and overcome unconscious bias

3 Minute Read

We can’t eliminate our biases, but we can understand them and know that there are things we can do to reduce the impact.

Here is a story you may have heard before.

Tropfest is the largest short film festival in the world and one of Australia’s most iconic cultural events. In 2016 only one of sixteen finalists were women. In 2017, that all changed. For the first time in the Tropfest’s 25-year history, women made up 50 percent of all its finalists. Why did that happen? Was it a new wave of the women’s movement? No, the spike in numbers occurred after filmmakers’ names were removed from the competition submissions, which meant the judges were evaluating the films, not the filmmakers. Welcome to the world of unconscious bias.

We make unconscious assumptions all the time. In fact, research over the last twenty years has concluded that we all have a conscious bias, impacting everything from gender, sexuality, race, body weight, religion, accent, height, and even right down to the colour of our eyes. Many of us try to overcome stereotyped preconceptions, as too much bias not only deprives our world of valuable talent, but it limits our opportunities and mostly ourselves. The question is what do you believe your unconscious biases are?

Unconscious bias is nothing new: it started hundreds of thousands of year ago when we were still living in caves. To be able to think quickly was vital, as to judge our surroundings decisively was often literally a life or death decision. In those days, if we were to see a big hairy mammoth we’d need to be able to tell instantly whether to take flight or fight, or else be eaten. It was really that simple.

Nothing much has changed

It’s not something that has evolved, as our brains are pretty much still hardwired in the same way, and often for good reason. Unconscious bias is not only blazingly fast and automatic, but it’s also a functional trick that helps us get through the day and make quick decisions without us having to think. In fact, our brains only fire up and become engaged in a ‘novel’ situation or when we need to intentionally direct our attention to something unfamiliar. In other words, if it’s not dangerous, new or exciting, we simply ignore it.

In contrast, conscious thinking is slow and focused, allowing us to rationally consider the unknown and handle complexity. Unfortunately, the deliberate mind is limited by what it can handle—processing only 40 bits—when we receive 11 million bits of information per second. Paltry by comparison.

Our pesky biases live in the gaps between these two systems of thinking: our quick, intuitive, shortcut system that lets us simultaneously drive a car while drinking coffee without much cognitive attention, and our more considered, conscious system that lets us handle the new and the unfamiliar.

Our view of the world is then filtered by our experiences, beliefs, values, assumptions, and our senses. We make mental shortcuts and develop habits to help us get by. These consciously created operating methods, once learnt, become unconscious or hidden. So our sense of self — that highly developed, capable, consciousness that sits inside our wrinkly walnut bit — is not really in control as much as it thinks.

We are in fact not rational creatures but rationalising creatures. As neuroscientist Dan Siegel discovered: neurons that fire together, wire together. Literally meaning, the more we think (and rethink) certain things, experiences and beliefs, the stronger they become. This is how we build habits, as they save our brains time. It’s difficult to overcome existing habits though, as once formed they are resilient. We are most comfortable with things we’ve seen or done before, loving that familiar route.

Our brains aren’t in as much control as its thinks. 

“Our irrational behaviours are neither random nor senseless – they are systematic and predictable. We all make the same types of mistakes over and over...” Daniel Ariely – Predictable Irrationality

My mother once said to make it in this world you need three things. You need to be tall, good-looking and have white teeth, many people feel the same way. It seems absurd that we should treat people differently because of their white teeth. But we do this all the time. We place more people in prison because of their skin colour. (In 2016, in Indigenous Australian incarceration rate had risen to 2,346 adult prisoners per 100,000 adults.) We give employees lower performance evaluations because of their weight. We give more finance to male entrepreneurs than women (only one in four start-ups are led by women in Australia). These biases are formed in our brains unknowingly throughout our life. Some help, but others hinder and lead to disadvantaging one group over another.

So why does all of this matter?

As businesses and workplaces are changing, we need to adapt to new modes of thinking.

Unconscious bias impacts almost all parts of the workplace, from recruiting and hiring, team dynamics, career development, diversity and even innovation. How can we make the best decisions, when we are not even aware of the forces that dominate the choices we make?

We cannot eliminate our biases, but we can understand them and know that there are things that we can do to reduce the impact of biases on our decision-making and to better reflect diversity. Being aware of biases also allows us to guide others towards certain decisions or behaviours without taking away their freedom to choose. Encouraging people to correct biases does more than change the way we view others, it affects the opportunities we seek, to create better workplaces, better organisations and better selves.


This content was created by Guardian Labs as part of a partnership with HSBC, and published on 16th October 2017.