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What Is Unconscious Bias? And Do You Have One?

When you think about police officers, CEOs, doctors, and custodians- what images come to mind? Do you have images of white men in your head? What about nurses and teachers? Images of white women now? The brain is a powerful organ. It often has to make quick decisions and associations which can lead us to this idea of unconscious bias.

So what is an unconscious bias?

According to Catalyst, a leader in diversity and inclusion research, unconscious bias is an implicit association or attitude that (1) operates beyond our control and awareness, (2) informs our perceptions of a person or social group, and (3) can influence our decision-making and behavior toward that target of our bias.

It is important to say that because we have brains, we ALL have biases. It doesn’t mean you are a good or bad person, it just means you have a brain :).

Think about unconscious bias as social stereotypes that happen in our brain but that we aren’t fully aware of.

That bias shows up in the example presented earlier, but also shows up in our personal interactions with various groups of people. Our biases affect how we see certain groups and how we interact with them.

The Unconscious Mind

Much of our brain activity happens in our unconscious mind, about 95% of it to be precise, and we should all be thankful for it.

Our brains are telling our body to do things like breath so that we don’t have to think about it. Because of this fact, many of our decisions are made outside of our conscious mind. Have you ever driven to work and can’t remember driving there? That’s your unconscious mind working for you. I find myself in awe of the power of our brains all the time, especially when I think about our unconscious minds.

In addition to what we know about our unconscious mind, we also know that our brains have the ability to make quick decisions to keep us safe. If we are about to hit a car, we have to stop quickly; if we are about to walk out into the street, our brains need to act quickly to save us. In those times, the “fight or flight” part of our brain, the amygdala, acts before the rest of our brains and bodies even know what is going on.

This is a good thing… most of the time. The challenge comes in during more complicated situations. That same part of the brain, the amygdala, attaches memories to emotions and helps us to make quick associations which can lead to bias.

According to Psychology Today: “The amygdala is an almond-shaped set of neurons deep in the temporal lobe. The amygdala has emerged as a key region of the brain in MRI bias research. The amygdala is the “emotional” center of the brain that reacts to fear and threat and other senses. Scientists have found a measurable correlation between amygdala activity and implicit racial bias.”

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The Biased Mind

The thing about bias is that it can absolutely interact and shape how we see people, how we view what they do and how we interact with them.

If you have a bias towards groups of people (let’s say white men as an example), it will impact how you interact with them. You may find yourself getting frustrated with them for things that don’t normally frustrate you. Or you may find yourself not trusting them for really no reason. Since it’s all unconscious, you likely won’t know it is happening and it likely won’t be intentional.

In my opinion, that is really the tricky and complicated thing about bias – it impacts us, but we don’t even know it!

Knowing Your Unconscious Bias

There are several ways to get a better idea of what your biases are. Harvard has done a tremendous amount of research on unconscious bias, and they have created an assessment to help people identify their own biases. I’d really encourage you to take the assessment – it’s pretty quick and can be done anonymously online.

Finally, take about 20 minutes to watch this TED talk by Verna Myers. It is one of my favorite TED talks. She talks some about bias then tells you what you should do to better live with bias. We won’t necessarily overcome bias because again, it is a brain thing that was created to keep us safe. What we can do, though, is work to make sure it doesn’t impact how we interact with people in our personal and professional lives.

About the Author

Jessica Sharp

Jessica Sharp is passionate about empowering underserved and minority communities, diverse representation, and brain education. Jessica is the Founder and Chief Educator of Sharp Brain Consulting which works with public service agencies to provide education about the brain and its effect on organizational outcomes. Additionally, she is on the leadership team of Meals on Wheels in her town of Greenville, SC. She is completing a Masters of Public Affairs from the University of Missouri. Upon her completion, she will attend William James College to obtain a Doctorate of Psychology. Follow her on twitter at @sharpjes.


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