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What is Unconscious Bias?

Last updated on 20th December 2023

The human brain makes judgements every day that help to keep ourselves safe through decision-making. Using the human senses, the brain aims to detect information that can help us in real life situations. This information processing happens at a rapid speed and contributes to how we make sense of the world. It is a necessary function that supports us in day-to-day life, to help us avoid danger.

Using the information that our brain is interpreting we can create judgements about things or people to influence our next actions (such as how to escape danger). However, this thought process can also cause us to treat some people more favourably or less favourably unnecessarily.

This is because our brain uses a subjective view to create an opinion about a particular person or thing. Subjectivity is using your personal feelings and opinions to judge something, as opposed to casting judgement based on facts, without prior opinion (which is objectivity). When an opinion is created using subjectivity, it is a biased opinion.

Daniel Kahneman, an influential psychologist, dedicated much of his work to studying the brain functioning for human judgement and decision-making; breaking down the process of how biased thoughts are created. He identified that our brains have two systems – system one and system two.

System one accounts for 98% of our overall thinking, and is the fast, unconscious, automated thought processor that we do not realise is functioning in our day-to-day life. System two accounts for the remaining 2% of our thinking. It is our slower thought processor that is initiated when we think consciously and deliberately.

Kahneman found that the system two part of our brain is influenced by system one; so, the thoughts and beliefs that we consciously think about are driven by bias from our unconscious thinking from our system one brain.

This means that we can all be guilty of unconscious bias, despite thinking that we have carefully considered our thought process and believe ourselves to be fair thinkers.

Unconscious bias is often unfair. It can be used to create labels and stereotypes about other people based on particular characteristics; even without having any prior interaction with them. Some characteristics that could be used in labelling or stereotyping include: age, gender, race, religion or disability.

These characteristics can be common routes of unconscious bias; categorising people into social groups with prejudice beliefs about their character and ability. The beliefs can cause unfavourable treatment leading to unfair consequences. The Equality Act 2010 protects many human characteristics to help combat unfair treatment.

Unconscious bias can occur in any situation, but it is commonly experienced in the workplace. The Equality Act 2010 gives those affected a voice to raise concerns and formally challenge unfair treatment.

Unaware That They Are Being Bias

Types of unconscious bias

Unconscious bias can take many forms, and whilst the cause of unconscious bias in each of these forms can be similar, they can be displayed based on different merits.

Some common types of unconscious bias are included below:

Affinity bias

Affinity bias can also be known as similarity bias. As the name suggests, it is the act of being favourable towards somebody because they share similarities with you. The similarities can be in the form of looks, personality or skills.

This form of unconscious bias can be common because the brain is naturally drawn to people that have similar qualities to us. It can be a particularly common form of bias during the recruitment process in the workplace, disguised as seeking a particular person to fit the workplace culture. This can act as a barrier to equality, diversity and innovation at work by failing to diversify teams.

Attribution bias

Attribution bias is the act of attributing a person’s success or happiness on an external thing as opposed to their own merit. For example, a person may have many accomplishments, but you may view the reason for those accomplishments as luck, instead of the person working hard to achieve them. This form of bias can create an overly negative view of a person by trying to find fault.

Beauty bias

Also known as attentiveness bias, this form of bias means that you may view somebody who you deem to be more attractive as more competent. Alternatively, you may view people that you deem to be less attractive as less competent. There is no way to avoid noticing how people look, but making decisions based on physical appearance can cause unconscious bias by making assumptions about them.

Conformity bias

Conformity bias means that you are influenced to conform based on the actions and opinions of others, as opposed to making your own judgement. This influences decision-making and actions based on the views of other people and what they deem to be acceptable.

Conformity Bias

Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias is the act of pre-empting or drawing conclusions about another person or their situation, due to your own personal experience of something similar. Instead of reviewing all of the facts, you may use your own evidence base to make conclusions that fit your narrative.

This means that you use your subjective experience and emotion to judge another person. Your internal prejudice influences your thinking instead of allowing an objective opinion to form.

Contrast effect

The contrast effect is the act of comparing two things or people against one another to form your opinion, even though there may be many other aspects to consider. This can be common in the recruitment process in the workplace; comparing applications against one another despite there being many different experiences to consider.

Gender bias

Gender bias is having a preference of one gender over another, and displaying this preference in your actions. The cause of this unconscious bias can stem from stereotypes about gender roles. A gender may be treated more or less favourably simply because of them being male, female, or non-binary.

Halo effect

The halo effect is a form of unconscious bias that, whilst unfair, can result in favourable treatment to a person. It is the act of assuming holistic positivity if a person has one exceptional attribute; meaning that you view someone to be exceptional in all areas of their life.

This type of bias can often form after meeting someone for the first time as your first impression of them. You may focus on a single positive aspect about them whilst neglecting other areas.

Horns effect

The horns effect means that you extend one undesirable area of a person’s life to all areas of their life (the opposite to the halo effect). This results in a person being treated less favourably because of one negative thing, despite other areas that could be positive.

Problems with unconscious bias

Unconscious bias can be dangerous because it can unintentionally alter our behaviours, attitudes and decision-making. Unconscious bias can affect anybody, either by committing unconscious bias or by being a victim to it. Even the most thoughtful people can display unconscious bias at some point in their lives.

It can be more common to display in situations of stress or pressure, because in these instances we place ourselves in a state that interrupts our logical and rationale thinking; feeling slightly out of control. This gives way for our unconscious bias to take over completely and alter our judgement. It presents a risk factor of creating an inaccurate evidence base, which therefore leads to poor decision-making.

This is a particular concern in situations such as recruitment because it is a barrier to equality. A study completed by BrightTalk found that 79% of HR professionals believed that unconscious bias was present in recruitment and decision-making.

It is extremely important that unconscious bias is eradicated from the workplace because it can have huge negative consequences on outcomes of all employees. It can lead to a loss of talent in the workplace, and give rise to discrimination. Removing unconscious bias can help to improve the wellbeing of employees at work, creating a happier, more productive workforce.

A study by Deloitte found that 39% of respondents felt that they experienced bias at work at least once a month. This shows the ongoing challenge of creating an inclusive workplace, even after the recruitment stage.

As well as this, unconscious bias can affect the customers and service users of professions. The Guardian reported on evidence that found unconscious bias was present and affecting outcomes for people in healthcare and the criminal justice system, as well as in recruitment and the workplace. The unconscious bias reported mostly affected ethnic minority groups, with less favourable and less inclusive treatment.

This is a second risk factor of unconscious bias; causing discrimination to a particular person or group of people. Ethnic minority groups can often be poorly represented in the media, with unfavourable language and negative news being predominantly reported.

These news stories can manifest into the daily interactions of the general public in society; leading to unfair stereotypes. This is just one example of what causes unconscious bias. Continue to the next section to learn more causes of unconscious bias.

Upset By Unconscious Bias

What causes unconscious bias?

Your subjective opinion manifests itself from your values, which begin to form during childhood. The life experiences that you have all contribute to your subjective opinion and the types of bias that you have.

The following tendencies can all be a cause of unconscious bias:

  • Culture – Who you are surrounded by as a child has a major role in how your belief system forms and guides you through adult life. This is because your surroundings shape your culture, and as you are developing as a child you are influenced by conversations and experiences. Research reported by the Guardian found that stereotyping can begin from an early age; which is attributed to your environment and role models. Although stereotypes can serve some purpose in helping us to navigate the world, they can create prejudice that becomes instilled into a person which can impact on our opinions and perceptions throughout life.
  • Patterns – Research has found that stereotyping is common among children, who seek out belonging to a group, and acknowledge differences between others. This is because the human brain has a natural tendency to seek out patterns to support rational thinking and navigate the world. However, without guidance from parents and caregivers, there is a risk that children could grow up to believe that difference is bad and similarity is good; thus, creating prejudices that follow them into adult life. Identifying difference and associating it with a negative opinion is how unconscious bias can form from childhood.
  • Oversimplifying the world – Creating categories is an easy way for the brain to make sense of the world. It creates shortcuts and makes the thought process easier. However, doing so can create inaccuracies that can lead to unconscious bias. The use of categories can place a heavy emphasis on stereotypes which could risk people being treated unfavourably.
  • Media – Consuming media is now a daily activity for almost all people. It can be accessed in paper form and digitally, at home or on the go. However, the media portray people using biased opinions which, over time, can manifest in the brain and can lead to your own personal bias forming.

Can unconscious bias be avoided?

It is impossible to avoid having a subjective opinion due to how the brain functions. To reduce unconscious bias, the most important thing that you can do is recognise it. By understanding that external influences, over time, can influence your own personal judgement, you can use your consciousness more during your decision-making.

This is the simple act of being honest with yourself, so that you can control any biased thoughts that you have. Reflection is a personal thought process that can help to remove unconscious bias from your actions and decision-making. It is a popular method of person centred practice in health and social care, but it can extend to all disciplines and areas of life.

Treating everybody as an individual, rather than judging them on their characteristics ensures that you are communicating and acting in a person centred manner. Despite people sharing characteristics, each person has their own qualities and attributes that are personal to them. By recognising this you can remove the risk of using biased opinions.

Reflecting on why you think and feel the way that you do can also help you to learn where your biased opinions stem from. Not only can this help to minimise unconscious bias in your everyday life, it can make you think for longer before making a decision, and fully assess all of the information prior to acting on it.

To avoid unconscious bias in the workplace, equality and diversity policies and procedures should be followed to support the treatment of employees at work (as well as potential employees during the recruitment process). Equality at work means that each person has a fair chance to opportunities; no matter what their background.

Diversity at work means that a workforce should include people from all backgrounds and with different characteristics. Promoting positive equality and diversity at work ensures that the workforce is inclusive of everybody; which should be practised in all areas of life. ACAS are an organisation that aim to remove unconscious bias by improving workplace relationships, uphold employer and employee rights, and help to resolve conflicts at work.

Most workplaces also offer training on equality, diversity and unconscious bias for the whole workforce. Training can assist understanding of potential bias to help overcome unfair treatment. It can also open dialogue about diversity, to create stronger more inclusive relationships.

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About the author

Maria Reding

Maria Reding

Maria has a background in social work and marketing, and is now a professional content writer. Outside of work she enjoys being active outdoors and doing yoga. In her spare time she likes to cook, read and travel.

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