How to recognise and overcome your own unconscious bias

This is what our implicit or unconscious biases are. These are the biases or prejudices that we might not always be aware of but they affect our actions, decisions and interactions with other people.

These internalised stereotypes of people based on their gender, race, accent, height, looks all affect how we perceive other people. This is different to explicit bias (these are attitudes and beliefs on a conscious level, such as hate speech), although understandably there can be overlap in the way these are expressed in the form of discrimination, prejudice and injustice.

Our unconscious biases are those that take us away from absolute rational, logical decision-making, the ones that manifest themselves in our actions and reactions often without us realising it, rearing their heads when we least expect it and sometimes taking us by surprise.

The actress Anne Hathaway admitted that the first time she worked with a woman director – Lone Scherfig, in the film One Day – her instinct was to doubt her. “I really regret not trusting her more easily,” Hathaway said.

“And I am to this day scared that the reason I didn’t trust her the way I trust some of the other directors I work with is because she’s a woman.” Accusing herself ruefully of “internalised misogyny”, Hathaway said that she realised that when she sees a film directed by a woman, she finds herself focusing on its faults; when it’s by a man, she looks first at its merits.

Internalised stereotypes based on gender, race, accent, height, looks affect how we perceive others

For instance, when YouTube launched the video upload feature for their app, 5–10 per cent of videos were uploaded upside-down, and for a while Google developers were baffled. Eventually they figured out it wasn’t poor design; they had only considered right-handed users. Their unconscious bias had overlooked the fact that left-handed users would turn the phone/app by 180 degrees.

In fact, left-handedness has suffered from an unfavourable perception for a long time. Scissors, musical instruments and knives are all designed for people who are right-handed, disadvantaging left-handed users. In this case, the societal norm is right- handedness, and society is unconsciously biased towards it.

In recent years, the interest in unconscious or implicit bias has increased. These terms are now being used to explain everyday discriminatory behaviour, and references to research into unconscious bias as a key to understanding and tackling social discrimination are at an all-time high. However, as the awareness, coverage and content around unconscious bias escalates, there is also plenty of misleading information out there.

Not all bias is implicit. Unconscious bias does not explain all prejudice and discrimination. And there is a real danger of unconscious bias being reduced to a ‘trend’ or a ‘fluff word’ and being used to excuse all sorts of discriminatory behaviour. This is why it is now becoming more crucial, more urgent, than ever to understand what unconscious bias really means, how it is formed, and what its underpinning scientific principles and theories are.

Sometimes these biases and prejudices also manifest in hidden, aversive ways. For instance, a study I did for my book accents can also shape our perception of the content and often detracts from it. A female academic (who preferred to stay anonymous) told me: ‘I gave a paper in a university in rural upstate New York. In my opinion, I completely smashed it.

Strong argument, well researched. At the end I was super-ready for questions. No hands went up. I waited a while. Then someone piped up: “What part of Scotland are you from?”’

Most accent discrimination and prejudice is insidious. Accents are our way of defining ourselves and others. There have been studies showing that any accent that is not similar to our own is immediately characterised as foreign. When people listen to an accent they immediately characterise and label it, and if there are other aspects of the accent that don’t correspond with this label, it is ignored. Speaking with a non-native accent can influence perceptions of the speaker’s fluency, and expectations concerning performance abilities. Moreover, speaking with a non-native accent may lead speakers to feel excluded and devalued at work. We tend to unconsciously group people into a specific social class and prejudice against them based on their accents. By thinking that someone with a particular accent is not very smart or clever, we are showing our unconscious bias.

There’s a danger of unconscious bias being reduced to a ‘trend’ or ‘fluff word’ to excuse all sorts of discriminatory behaviour

These preferences for certain attributes create a hierarchy in our society where certain groups of people have more privilege, opportunities, and power than others. In Western societies, ‘white’ remains the norm. According to an analytical study by the Guardian of 214 covers published by the 19 bestselling glossies in 2017 in the UK, only 20 featured a person of colour, although around 14 per cent of the UK population is BAME, according to the Office for National Statistics’ latest estimate, published in June 2016. Clearly this is not an accurate representation of the society at large.

Each of us form and carry unconscious biases of some sort. It’s not only the behaviour of bigoted, racist or sexist people but of everyone, including you and me. So really the answer is to go to the roots, to understand the processes that shape us, to be aware, to acknowledge that we are all biased – to a certain degree – and that we all discriminate.

Being aware of how our own implicit biases are shaped by our own upbringing and our life experiences can help us minimise these in our roles as parents, carers, friends and educators. Taking our time with important decisions can help us de-automatise. This means that we do not fall back on our unconscious biases, but instead activate our logical and rational thinking and actively bust any biases that can affect our decisions.

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