The impact of our Brain on Unconscious bias
Do you consider yourself a biased person? Most of us would emphatically say no.
When we reflect a little deeper, each of us carries with us a mental map of the world that enable us to navigate the world intuitively. These mental maps get formed based on our experiences, observations, prior information, associations with other similar situations. We deploy decisions or actions that do not generate any stress or analysis but help us navigate life quickly.
This general rule of living driven by associated memory also gives rise to other realities that may not have pleasant outcomes. Implicit or unconscious bias happens by our brains making incredibly quick judgments and assessments of people and situations without us even realising. Our biases are influenced by our background, societal conditioning, cultural context and personal experiences. We may not even be aware of these views and opinions, or be aware of their full impact and implications.
For instance, we form notions of what people from the south or north are like (regional), how men and women typically are or behave (gender); how the attitude of the younger generation is a departure and regressive from senior age groups (generational), how lawyers and doctors come across (professional), how a criminal might look like (moral). These images come instantly to mind when we see similarities with people and we take a position or stance towards them. These positions form opinions that are moulded by our preconceptions.
They can be both positive and negative images and drive our behaviours and actions about people when we meet, hear or even read about.
Why do we behave like this?
The answer lies, in a simple truth on how are brains are wired. The human brain is unwilling to expend much of its energy and processing capacity unless it really has to.
According to research, to keep from having to work too hard, the brain relies on simple, efficient thought processes to get the job done, not so much out of laziness but more out of necessity. In our cluttered world of activity and continuous streaming of decision making or navigation, the brain is unable to give every individual and every occurrence its undivided, unbiased attention.
As quoted ‘So when it comes to perceiving you, your colleagues are (without realizing it) relying heavily on assumptions, the miserly brain’s favorite shortcut. They guide what the perceiver sees, how that information is interpreted, and how it is remembered, forming an integral part of his or her perception of you.’
There are 2 forms of assumptions amongst many that have a powerful impact
Confirmation bias – occurs based on perception and experience from past behaviour. We make decisions largely in a way that is designed to confirm beliefs that we already have. This behaviour occurs unconsciously in both positive and negative ways.
Primacy effect – is associated with “the first impression.” Psychologists have documented that interviewers’ first impressions of a candidate play a powerful role in their subsequent assessment.
Another significant study found a correlation between amygdala (an almond-shaped set of neurons deep in the temporal lobe) activity and implicit racial bias. It has also been found that implicit stereotyping is associated with the left temporal and frontal lobes. The left temporal lobe is important for storing general information about people and objects, this seems to be an important place for social stereotypes. The medial frontal cortex is important for forming impressions of others, empathy and various forms of reasoning.
Impact of unconscious bias
Through insights gained from our practical experience we have found that unconscious bias can heavily influence important professional decisions surrounding people in the workplace and inhibits progress of diversity. Some of the areas where it can be pronounced are:
- Making hiring decisions
- Assessing and selecting
- Giving performance reviews
- Deciding promotions
- Providing career opportunities
- Listening to people’s ideas and suggestions
- Valuing and respecting perspectives
Unlearning through the process of Awareness and Sensitization
As biases are implicit and at many times an automatic responses, there are no easy solutions to override them. Continuous sensitization built on reflection from scenarios, real instances of impact, classical fear conditioning helps in unlearning behaviours and guiding responses overtime. As our brains are governed by cognitive laziness, we have to develop a plan to mitigate the different types of biases as we become aware and learn to recognize them.
While it seems uncontrollable – research has found that the brain is well-equipped for controlling unwanted biases, if the person detects their presence
Exploring unconscious biases is foundational to the field of inclusion and diversity. While we learn to appreciate diversity, it is equally important to control our responses to biases and progress to being inclusive.
Learning interventions should appropriately be designed to understand and become aware of micro inequities at work.
Leaders need to be aware of the impact of their decisions governed by unconscious biases. Managers need to be conscious of appreciating differences and appreciating the strengths that diversity brings to the team. Being prejudiced to backgrounds, personality types, thinking styles or experience can have far reaching impact on how careers get managed and the engagement level of teams. Individuals need to continuously self-reflect on the impact of their behaviours and actions on their peers and colleagues.
The 3 steps that organizations and leaders need to take
- Recognize that as human beings, our brains make mistakes without us even knowing it. This process of awareness can be achieved by a guided reflection technique to make the unconscious … conscious.
- Reframe the conversation to focus on fair treatment and respect
- Review every aspect of the employment life cycle for hidden bias
Our work is governed by extensive experience in unconscious biases and unravelling stereotypes and prejudices through a structured process involving assessment to reflection. Our Inclusive leader program is a flagship program for leaders and managers to become more self-aware and effectively leading diverse teams.
Diversity and Inclusion is one of our core practices and we consult, educate and coach businesses, communities and individuals. Our approach is driven by original research and proven methodologies. We bring in both western principles and Indian management philosophy. Our values lie in our abilities – Empathetic approach, Collaborative partnerships and being able to build Connectedness with mind and heart.