Understanding conscious and unconscious bias is a step towards self-awareness.
What is bias?
Bias is generally described as the tendency to favor a thing, person, or group, compared with another, usually in a way that is thought to be unfair. Although most of us like to think that we are free from bias, bias is actually part and parcel of the way most of us think and respond. Do you have a bias toward coffee or tea? Cats or dogs?
Bias exists at two different levels. Some bias is “conscious” and is reflected outwardly as racism, sexism, stereotyping, and discrimination. This is what most of us think of when we consider bias, and we don’t want to admit that it affects us at all. Conscious bias is linked in our minds with “bad” people and behavior that we strongly disapprove of. We can become defensive when we think about its possible effects on our own thinking and behavior.
The lesser known type of bias is “unconscious”—an immediate, reflexive reaction to something that is either familiar or different. Research shows that people, at this unconscious level, tend to perceive anyone who is different as a threat because our brains have become wired over thousands of years to have this response.
We process sensory input and react to it in different ways, both consciously and unconsciously. Unconscious bias and conscious bias work together to form our responses to and treatment of people we perceive as different from us.
Unpacking Unconscious Bias
Our most immediate reactions to sensory input—events, images, sounds, words—are unconscious. This is the split-second determination of whether what we’ve encountered is safe or possibly dangerous, for example. It’s what causes us to jump out of the way of a too-close speeding bicycle before we consciously realize we are in danger.
That fast-thinking part of our brain operates at a level we aren’t even aware of. A more considered and thoughtful reaction—a conscious one—comes after that first unconscious response. We may jump out of the way of something (an unconscious response), then realize with some embarrassment that it was only the shadow of a bird flying overhead (a conscious response).
Unconscious bias, also called implicit bias, is the immediate, subconscious assessment of something or someone. It’s the judgment we make in a fraction of a second about whether to welcome or be wary of another person. It’s an instant emotional response that can range from warmth to discomfort or fear. And it happens below the radar of our conscious thought.
Unconscious bias affects how we respond to other people based on their gender, skin color, facial features, age, size, voice, clothing, grooming, and a host of other characteristics. These reactions are built on associations that develop starting at a very early age. They are influenced by our observations of the world around us—what members of our family look like and how they act, who we see in our neighborhood, who our friends are, and how we see different types of people portrayed in the media and on the news.
This quick, subconscious thinking can help us make decisions and react to situations without wasting mental energy (Coffee or tea? Keep driving or step on the brakes?). But when it comes to our interactions with other people, it can lead to irrational prejudices and harmful behavior.
Many people are uncomfortable with the idea of unconscious bias. We like to think of ourselves as rational, fair, kind, and even-handed. Admitting to gut-level reactions based on race or ethnicity can threaten our belief in who we are. But accepting the fact of unconscious bias as part of being human is an important step in working toward more bias-free behavior.
How do researchers detect and measure unconscious bias?
Because unconscious or implicit bias occurs below the level of our conscious thought, we aren’t aware of it ourselves. No amount of introspection or soul searching can make these near-instantaneous reactions visible to us. So, researchers can’t ask questions of test subjects to understand or measure it. Instead, they use assessments that measure how strongly people associate different concepts with different groups of people in making quick responses.
The Implicit Association Test (IAT) was developed at Harvard University in the 1990s to measure unconscious associations based on race and introduced in a widely cited 1998 research paper. Since then, different versions have been created to measure unconscious bias based on gender, age, religion, weight, sexuality, and other identity categories, and the test has been administered to more than 20 million subjects.
A key and consistent finding of the IAT is that most people are faster to associate White people with positive qualities and Black people with negative qualities in these rapid unconscious reactions. That’s true with subjects of all races, showing how pervasive anti-Black bias is, even among many Black people. To see how these tests work by taking one yourself, visit the Project Implicit website. (Note that the results won’t tell you, as an individual, whether you have biased thinking. You may also get different results if you take a test a second time. The metrics are only valid when applied across large numbers of subjects.)
How does unconscious bias interact with our higher-level, logical, conscious thinking?
Our unconscious reaction to a person’s appearance or an event can sometimes distort our conscious thinking, leading to behavior that is irrational or contrary to what we think we believe. Here are two examples:
- A 2014 study of responses to approaching hurricanes showed that people perceive hurricanes with male names to be more powerful and more destructive than hurricanes with female names. The result? People are more likely to evacuate as a male-named hurricane approaches than they are for a female-named hurricane. As a consequence, there is greater loss of life from hurricanes with female names. It’s completely illogical, but it shows how unconscious gender bias can affect our behavior.
- A 2012 study presented pediatricians with identical case vignettes for Black and White patients. Doctors with greater implicit pro-White racial bias were more likely to prescribe narcotic painkillers after surgery for White patients than they were for Black patients.
Another way unconscious bias distorts conscious thought is by causing us to rationalize our gut reaction with a socially acceptable explanation. For example, when choosing between two candidates who are equally qualified for a job, one of them Black and the other White, unconscious bias may lead us to favor the White candidate. But, without realizing why we lean toward that choice, we construct a socially acceptable explanation in our conscious mind to justify the choice. We preserve our self-image as racially unbiased without realizing how unconscious bias is influencing our decisions, behavior, and thinking.
Life experience can also lead to both unconscious and conscious bias. Historic structural obstacles to racial integration—such as redlining that defined where people of different races could live—persist in housing patterns today. As a result, you may have grown up in or live today in a community where most of the people look like you. That can affect who your friends are, who you tend to date, and who you are most comfortable with. All of those factors can play into your unconscious reactions to people of different races and ethnicities. In a similar way, an unconscious aversion to people who are openly homosexual or bisexual can develop from lack of familiarity, simply because these tendencies were hidden in the community where you grew up.
When diversity in our social circle is limited, we don’t have real people—unique individuals we get to know and trust through long association—who can counter generalizations and stereotypes in our conscious minds and temper the instant judgments of our unconscious biases.
Conscious and unconscious bias operate together in this way: a fast, unconscious assessment of a person—friend or foe, strong or weak, one of us or one of “them”—followed by a more considered conscious assessment and possibly a response.
What can we do to reduce the effects of bias in our thoughts and actions?
It’s very difficult to change the instant reactions of unconscious bias. Those reactions follow paths in our brains that have been reinforced by a lifetime of experience and media exposure. But it’s an important step to recognize that you may have those unconscious thought patterns and to watch for ways they might play out in your conscious thoughts and actions.
We all need to get past the knee-jerk, defensive reaction to the idea that we may have biases. That can come out in statements like, “I’m colorblind. I don’t even see race.” If you have eyes you see race. Instead, recognize that you have biases. We all do. It’s part of being human. It doesn’t mean that you’re a racist or a bad person. Accepting the reality of your biases is the first step in making progress toward countering their effects on your thoughts and actions.
While self-reflection can’t expose unconscious bias—it operates at a level invisible to conscious thought—we can examine our actions and reflect on how bias might be affecting them:
- Think about who your friends are. Why are you drawn to some people and not others? Think about where you live, and why you chose to live there. It’s natural to feel more comfortable with people who are “like you,” but it’s a sign of bias if you define “like you” so narrowly that you don’t consider people of different races, ethnicities, or religions for inclusion in your social circle. Start by being aware of how bias may be limiting your social interactions, then think about how you might broaden your circle of connections. That might be by engaging in volunteer activities in which you meet new people. It might be by getting to know different coworkers better.
- Think about how bias might have influenced your actions and decisions in the past and how it might be influencing you today. If you’re a manager, who have you hired for your team? And, why did you make those decisions? How did you recruit for those positions to get a diverse pool of candidates? Simple steps like blanking out names and addresses on applicants’ resumes can help keep racial and gender bias out of the hiring process.
- Pay attention to how bias influences your assumptions about people. Consider stereotyped assumptions—that women are more empathetic than men, that Black people live in poor neighborhoods, that Asian people are better at math—and think of the people you know who don’t fit those stereotypes. When you catch yourself making a stereotyped assumption, challenge it within yourself before you speak it and embarrass yourself or inflict emotional pain of someone else.
- Learn more about people who are different from you by reading and watching movies. Don’t use the kinds of books that reinforce the stereotypes but biographies, history, documentaries, or fiction that portrays different kinds of people in true, sympathetic, and insightful ways.
One way to understand unconscious or implicit bias is to take an Implicit Association Test:
- Harvard University’s Project Implicit offers several versions of the Implicit Association Test to assess your tendency to unconscious bias based on race, gender, sexuality, and other factors.
- The Teaching Tolerance website has a good explanation of implicit bias and what to expect from the experience of taking an Implicit Association Test.
The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University offers information about racial and ethnic bias, including an annual review of research on implicit bias. The Kirwan Institute worked with MTV to create a set of seven-day bias cleanses on attitudes toward race, gender, and sexuality. Access it at Look Different: Bias Cleanse.
Books About Bias
Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice that Shapes What We See, Think, and Do (https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/557462/biased-by-jennifer-l-eberhardt-phd), by Jennifer Eberhardt (Penguin Random House, 2019)
Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People (https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/8099/blindspot-by-mahzarin-r-banaji-and-anthony-g-greenwald), by Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald (Delacorte, 2013 & Bantam, 2016)
Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Lives (https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781442258655/Everyday-Bias-Identifying-and-Navigating-Unconscious-Judgments-in-Our-Daily-Lives-Updated-Edition), by Howard Ross (Rowman and Littlefield, 2014)
Videos About Bias
“How to Outsmart Your Own Unconscious Bias” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GP-cqFLS8Q4), by Valerie Alexander (TEDx Pasadena, 2018, 17 minutes)
“Implicit Bias: How it Affects Us and How We Push Through” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fr8G7MtRNlk), by Melanie Funchess (TEDx Flour City, 2014, 16 minutes)
“The Look” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aJav36Nbn58)—a short anti-racism ad created by Procter & Gamble
“Story of Access” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o__5xvIE3bU)—an eight-minute video documentary created by Stanley Nelson, used as part of Starbucks racial awareness training for all associates in 2018
“Unconscious Bias at Work: Making the Unconscious Conscious” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NW5s_-Nl3JE), by Google (2014, four minutes)
“What Is Unconscious Bias?” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rbe5D3Yh43o), by Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion (2015, three minutes)
Disclaimer: This document is intended for general information only. It does not provide the reader with specific direction, advice, or recommendations. You may wish to contact an appropriate professional for questions concerning your particular situation.