Unconscious biases have a powerful impact on society. When it comes to diversity and inclusion, unconscious biases related to race, gender, culture, and more can change the course of lives, from contributing to individuals’ social exclusion to removing well-earned opportunities in the workplace. It’s imperative to find a starting point to understand our unconscious biases, address the underlying causes, and develop the necessary tools to eliminate their use from our lives.
There’s no better time than now to take personal action to contribute to a diverse and inclusive way of life. Working toward affirmative change has the power to affect all aspects you may touch in life, creating a butterfly effect. As Maya Angelou said: When you know better, do better.
A good explanation of unconscious bias, also referred to as implicit bias, can be found on Vanderbilt University’s diversity web page, which describes unconscious bias as the brain making quick, unsubstantiated judgment based on past experiences for or against someone, something, or a group that’s most often interpreted as unfair (bit.ly/2JchGWs).
One way to understand what this entails is through the concept of schemas or schemata. A schema is a set of preconceived ideas stored in your memory and used to assess a current situation and guide an action. These simplified units of data create a blueprint, allowing you to eliminate sometimes pertinent details of a current experience and strongly influence the resulting decision.
British psychologist Frederic Bartlett, who spent his career serving as director of Cambridge Psychological Laboratory (1922-1952) and professor of experimental psychology at the University of Cambridge (1931-1952), worked extensively on the topic. In Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology, Bartlett documented how memories are adaptations of experiences based on cultural attitude and personal habits. Through his work, he found that there is very low perception of the specific details of an event during the occurrence itself due to schemas normalizing the incident.
Schemas are the foundation of unconscious biases. They impact diversity and inclusion in the workplace by limiting our ability to see beyond the history of clips stored in our brains and used for problem solving and brainstorming. They allow us to depend on what has worked instead of considering what could work differently, resulting in a limited output and, in some cases, lower profitability.
A great example of schemas taking hold is given by Steve L. Robbins in his book What If? Short Stories to Spark Diversity Dialogue, in which he tells the story about his vacuum cleaner breaking. Even though his usual method of sustaining the malfunctioning part was failing, he displayed sheer reluctance to take his wife’s advice because her suggestion wasn’t one of the “tools” in his “toolbox.” Ultimately, he tried her method and found success. He learned that the diversity of each person’s experience as a whole is greater than an individual’s and has the power to solve a problem. This inclusive way of thinking results in greater solutions.
A consequence of schemas in the workplace could be missing out on hiring a great candidate by allowing your brain to go into “auto-pilot,” according to James Clear of The Habits Academy (bit.ly/2JRhZqg). A hiring manager is likely to lean toward a candidate with whom the manager can relate on some level, whether it’s as simplistic as attendance at the same university or certain shared traits or characteristics. This happens even when a candidate better suited for the job has been identified.
From the time we begin interpreting events as children, we’re developing schemas for understanding not only the outside world but also ourselves. When unconscious biases have been built into these schemas, even the most well-intentioned of us could run the risk of unknowingly affecting those around us. These biases often show up in ways we would never have realized. The first step is to become aware of how extensive they could be and be on the lookout for places where they might be present.
Consider some examples of seemingly hidden gender biases. In the book Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Caroline Criado Perez explains that society is so used to “thinking” of men when it thinks of human beings—i.e., we use schemas—that we have essentially built a world around men, causing the exclusion of important information used to create things like risk prevention models, product design, and even computer programs.
For example, Criado Perez describes a 2017 image study in which an AI algorithm was trained to retrieve kitchen cooking scenes. Pictures of cooking were more than 33% more likely to involve women than men, but algorithms trained on this data set connected pictures of kitchens with women 68% of the time, indicating the algorithm was inherently gender biased since it predominately linked women with being in the kitchen rather than it being a place that could be associated with men or women.
This basic example of gender stereotyping demonstrates how a human-trained algorithm can be biased by design. This can be a danger in the workplace for several reasons. For example, studies show that more than 75% of résumés are never seen by a human due to the implementation of applicant tracking system software, which means algorithms, programmed by people, are first determining a candidate’s compatibility. Any inherent bias in the algorithm—not just gender, but racial, ethnographic, etc.—would then potentially carry over into the selection of job candidates.
Research shows schemas are dynamic and capable of being changed through positive practice over time. Once we recognize the potential for unconscious biases, we need to work to minimize their impact. To do this, we must slow down when making decisions or having new experiences, cultivate a sense of awareness by developing our understanding of how these schemas and biases present themselves, and change our experiences by speaking up in situations that we realize involve the exercise of unconscious biases. Ultimately, we must practice self-accountability and must, in the words of Gandhi, be the change we wish to see in the world.
Often I’ve found the desire of people to contribute to change is outweighed by their fear fueled by lack of understanding. I believe the greatest change agents are powered by confidence gained through subject matter education broken down into palatable pieces or experiences. I hope that, by gaining a better understanding of some of the psychology behind unconscious bias, you will feel empowered to begin the journey toward evolving your schemas and helping create a more diverse and inclusive world around you.