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Unconscious Bias

Human beings are hard-wired to make intuitive decisions about other people. We go about our daily lives making unconscious judgements that affect our attitudes and behaviours towards other people.

What is unconscious bias?

Our brains use visual, verbal and behavioural clues to categorise others, for instance by age, gender, ethnicity, or social background, sexual orientation or education. These clues can be incredibly useful as we make our way through life. They help us to determine whether someone might be friendly or hostile. We do this through a process of rapid categorisation that is both natural and necessary. This process of rapid categorisation as suggested by the psychologist Joseph LeDoux acts as an unconscious danger detector, which helps us to determine whether someone or something is safe.

From a basic human survival standpoint, developed through human evolution, our unconscious judgements or biases are necessary and essential. The process of placing people into categories and pre-judging helps us to make rapid decisions that could literally be life-saving. Social categorisation also helps us to deal with everyday encounters, such as visiting the dentist or the doctor. The categorisation process helps to inform intuitive and appropriate behaviours and expectations from both parties. These rules of behaviours are stored within our unconscious and saves us from having to decode common social interactions. We behave in socially acceptable ways and make everyday judgements without being aware of doing so.

Why is it important?

The down side of rapid categorisation is that our brains often misread the clues of our unconscious judgements and this shifts us from danger detectors to social labelling and stereotyping that leads to high levels of prejudice and discrimination. In a workplace context bias impacts, for instance, our hiring decisions. Factors that lead to bias include:

  • Visual social identity: stereotypes are formed based on gender, ethnic and other social categorises.
  • Dress: what a candidate wears can have a powerful impact on how interviewers think about them.
  • Accent: interviewers make all sorts of assumptions about a candidate’s education and skills based on their social accent. Unconscious assessments (and biases) include the extent to which a candidate will fit into the prevailing organisational culture.
  • Information on the CV: this could include social activities as well as work history and qualifications. Interviewers may make assumptions, for instance, on a candidate’s sexual orientation based on voluntary activities. These unconscious assumptions will often influence appointment decisions.

These first impressions often lead to what is known as the halo effect.  The so called halo effect occurs when something about a candidate creates such a favourable impression on the interviewer in the early stages of the interview that it is as if the candidate has a halo and can say nothing wrong. The result can be that anything the candidate says passes through a favourable filter, and any negative aspects of the candidate are overlooked or minimised. The opposite effect (known as the ‘reverse halo’ or the ‘horns affect’) can occur if the interviewer’s first impression of the candidate is unfavourable in some respect.