Understanding the Language and Pitfalls of Unconscious Bias Author: Iona Casley     
Date: 4th July 2018



An even gender split of musicians walk into an audition, instruments in hand. It’s the 70s, and they are there to compete for places in one of the US’ five top orchestras. By the end of the process, of the twenty who succeed only one of the women will have made it through. Fast forward ten years and the same even split of applicants stand ready to play, this time with a screen blocking them from the judges’ view. Again, by the end only one woman proceeds to play for the orchestra. A few years on from this, the same proportion of men and women play for their place, though this time they are told to remove their shoes beforehand. In this audition, seven women out of twenty applicants succeed and become players in the orchestra. With any indication of their sex removed, including the tell-tale tapping of their high-heels on the floor of the auditorium, they are six times more likely to be accepted.

The example of blind auditions demonstrates the power of unconscious bias, whereby judges observe the sex of the musician and make decisions on their performance based on the associated assumptions. However, the line between discrimination being ‘unconscious’ and ‘conscious’ is hard to define and test. It is important to take care when using this kind of terminology (be it ‘unconscious’ or ‘implicit’ bias), and be aware that it should not on any account be used as a substitute for personal or institutionalised prejudice. Using the term ‘unconscious bias’ can allow people to deflect accountability, and such soft language risks excusing discriminatory behaviour and turning biases into unknowable and unalterable phenomena, about which nothing can be done.

Everyone has unconscious bias: a bias in judgements of other people that is influenced by social categories, where the person is either unaware or unable to control the influence. This is automatic, quick, and has helped humans get to where they are today. It allows us to take short-cuts and make assumptions in a world of limited time. For example, confirmation bias allows us to seek information that confirms what we believe. This strategy provides us with a starting point, skipping endless speculation which would delay decision-making. However, such short-cuts, while essential, also create distortions in the conclusions we come to.

There are many types of unconscious bias. It may make us favour certain people, often when they look, sound or behave like us, or it may make us compare ourselves to others to develop a sense of our individual or group identity. Often, however, unconscious bias makes the news for its darker side: bias leading to discriminatory or prejudiced behaviour. Many characteristics are subject to this, such as race, sex, gender identity, religion, sexual orientation, and physical and mental abilities. While unconscious bias is deeply culturally embedded and may be difficult to shift, mitigating the effects of unconscious bias once it has been recognised is possible.

Evidence suggests that on the personal level, despite trying your best to be clear-headed and reasonable, biases will persist. The Implicit Association Test (IAT), a psychological test developed in the late 90s, purported to reveal implicit attitudes that people are otherwise unable to report or recognise. To its credit, the IAT has shown people who were previously convinced of their pure egalitarianism that even they hold biases. In theory, this should lead to greater self-awareness and a cultural shift to becoming a fairer and less judgemental society. However, recognising your own prejudiced thoughts does nothing to help people who face systematic discrimination, which is why the test has recently faced criticism.

Additionally, terming such prejudice to be ‘unconscious’ or ‘implicit’ is problematic. The term ‘unconscious’ is unclear and runs the risk of us thinking of biases as essentially unknowable and unalterable, when there is plenty of evidence that people are at least in some ways aware of their biases or able to intervene in their expression. Biases being unconscious should not allow us to think that they are unknowable, unchangeable, or, most importantly, unaccountable for.

A few weeks ago I was at a focus group in Birmingham with Mind, for whom I work as a Policy and Network Relations Trainee. We were talking to people from black and minority ethnic groups about their experiences under the Mental Health Act, to feed into Mind’s work on the Government’s current review of the Act. Some of the questions explored why people from black African and Caribbean communities are more than four times more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act than their white British counterparts. Unconscious bias was suggested as one reason for this, however, this soon sparked some strong responses. It was felt by lots of people in the room that although unconscious bias may be a problem, what was really at work was institutionalised racism. To focus on unconscious bias before looking at the deep-rooted causes of discrimination in the mental health system was to ignore the extent of the problem.

Suggestions of solutions to these issues centred on cultural understanding, perhaps enabled through diversity in the mental health workforce, especially among senior decision-makers, or through training and advocacy. This approach moves away from much of the training created in wake of the IAT which focussed on the individual as opposed to a wider cultural shift. Although self-reflection is important, especially when it recognises both explicit and implicit bias, often reducing the negative impact of unconscious bias relies mostly on the people and culture around you.

In a workplace this may involve creating an environment where you can challenge and be challenged, and feel you can talk and reflect to change your behaviour. It is important that we try to identify situations where bias may play a larger role, or identify particular biases which are latent in our culture. This mitigation can be targeted towards particularly important decisions, or decisions we think are likely to be prone to bias.

While recognising our own and others’ biases is important, especially when we differentiate critically whether these are conscious or unconscious, what is essential is that this leads to a change in behaviour, which in turn will impact on the culture around you. The words of Phillip Atiba Goff, president of the Centre for Policing Equity, are powerful: ‘I’ve been black my entire life. I don’t care about the hearts and minds of the people who do racist behaviours towards me. I want the behaviours to stop’.

A note on etymologies: The word ‘bias’ originates from the French sixteenth century ‘biais’ meaning ‘a slant or diagonal line’. In the old game of bowls (pictured), ‘bias’ was used as a technical term for the weight added to balls on one side, causing them to curve around in a slant. This led in the 1570s to the phrase ‘a one-sided tendency of the mind’. Over time, this became synonymous with the word for the weight on the ball itself, ‘bias’.

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