Whether we admit to it or not, bias affects many of the decisions we make on a day-to-day basis. From warming to people with whom you have things in common, to more serious assumptions based on someone’s gender or race, unconscious bias can influence our lives and the lives of the people around us.
In recent years there has been a prominent push towards tackling the effects of implicit bias and ensuring that everyone is aware of their own privileges and how their unconscious attitudes shape how they see the world. This is particularly relevant to those who are in leadership or management positions, as removing bias from the workplace is a huge step towards establishing equality..
Unconscious bias, also known as implicit bias, is the phenomenon of forming an opinion or assumption about a person, place or situation without being consciously aware of it.
Our brains work by using previous experiences and information to predict and form opinions about new experiences. These opinions can be influenced by cultural attitudes, emotional reactions, memories of social situations or stereotypes that exist in the media and beyond.
Whilst the automatic functions of our brain are incredibly useful in many cases, in the case of unconscious bias we tend to form opinions that have no truthful basis. Even if the bias you have is positive, it can still have a negative effect.
This can affect the way that we treat other people both consciously and unconsciously, which has a severe impact on groups who are often the victims of unconscious bias.
In the workplace, unconscious bias can have a huge effect on who is hired, promoted or chosen for certain roles in team situations. A key part of being a successful and competent leader or manager is acknowledging your own unconscious bias and taking steps to prevent it from affecting your decisions and the people in your workplace.
Affinity bias is the tendency to appreciate or prefer people who are similar to yourself. It happens because your brain sees similar people as approachable and relatable, and wants to spend time around those with whom it will be easy to get on with.
Affinity bias explains why we tend to quickly become friends with people with whom we share characteristics or interests. However, it can affect workplace decisions and recruitment because it means that we favour people who are similar to us and may feel that they are best suited to certain jobs or roles because of this affinity.
To tackle affinity bias, it is important to make decisions and judgments without factoring in your own personal opinion and be aware of how you may subconsciously lean towards working with or hiring people with similar backgrounds or interests. Whilst ‘culture fit’ is an important part of some business’ hiring practices, you should prioritise skills and experience over who feels like they’ll work well with other employees.
Attribution bias is a psychological phenomenon that refers to the way that we perceive the causes of other people’s actions. It often means that we jump to conclusions about someone’s behaviour or accomplishments without stopping to consider the context.
In many situations, our automatic assumption is that the behaviour of the people around us is caused by their internal characteristics, whereas we view our own reactions and responses as caused by external factors. This often means that if someone does something we perceive as bad, we assume that it is their fault.
In the workplace, this can often mean that we blame other people’s mistakes or failures on their own abilities instead of considering what else might have happened. When you’re hiring a new employee, you may unconsciously focus on their faults and overlook what they have achieved, which will affect your perception of them.
Attribution bias can also be an issue in tandem with gender, with many people unconsciously believing that women are less competent than men. If a female colleague or candidate does something impressive then you may be more likely to automatically assume they had help or got lucky, whereas if they do something wrong your first could be that their mistake was caused by a personality fault.
To tackle attribution bias, it is helpful to understand the full context of someone else’s achievements or mistakes, and ensure that you’re not assuming something about a characteristic that someone cannot control.
Beauty bias is the tendency to prefer people who we find more physically attractive. It also means that we often base an initial assessment of someone on what they look like.
Because of societal attitudes around beauty, many of us make automatic assumptions on a person’s worth, intelligence or personality based on what they look like. We might not even consciously be aware of this bias, but it may inform how we speak to them or describe them to others.
In the workplace, people who ‘look’ professional tend to be favoured over those who may not have the ability or resources to appear as immaculately presented. We might unconsciously favour people who are considered more ‘attractive’ because of general attitudes towards beauty and how it is praised and linked with success.
To tackle beauty bias, it is important to be aware of your initial assumptions about a person because of their appearance and counteract any automatic thoughts about things like height, weight, clothing or overall presentation.
Conformity bias occurs when our opinions are affected and changed by the opinions of other people.
It stems from an innate need to be liked and accepted by our peers, which we try and secure by agreeing with decisions and opinions that the majority of people hold.
In the workplace, this can mean that it is hard to share your opinions if the majority of other colleagues feel differently. You may feel the need to agree with others for the sake of getting along with everyone or find that you are not listened to if you are the only person with a different opinion.
When hiring new employees or choosing who to promote or give more responsibility to, conformity bias may also affect who gets chosen.
To minimise conformity bias, ensure that your voice is being heard in group discussions even if your opinion goes against the majority. If you are in a managerial or leadership position, also ensure that all of your employees’ voices are getting heard and that decisions aren’t being made because people are going along with the majority.
Confirmation bias is the tendency to look for and favour information that supports opinions or beliefs that we already have.
If we have already made assumptions about a person or situation, or feel very strongly about an issue, you will be more likely to seek out other opinions that support our own and only focus on evidence that backs up what you believe is true. Whether conscious or not, this can lead to selective observation in which we only focus on information that enforces our beliefs, rejecting anything that contradicts this.
At work, confirmation bias can mean that certain employees face harsher criticism than others because someone may have a confirmation bias towards them based on something negative that happened in the past. Or, it can mean that candidates for a potential job are unfairly assessed based on an assumption an interviewer makes about them at the start of a meeting.
The best way to remove confirmation bias is to ensure that any decisions that you are making are supported by unbiased information, and that you have explored a full range of sources to get this information. It can also be helpful to consult multiple perspectives when making decisions, ensuring that any suspected confirmation bias is explored and removed.
Gender bias is one of the most widely understood types of unconscious bias and occurs when we form unsupported opinions or make false assumptions about a person based on their gender.
This happens because we live in a gender-biased society, despite progress to remove this, so we form attitudes based on gender without realising.
Gender bias affects women more significantly than men, although men still suffer because of it. In the workplace, gender bias can involve unequal pay, candidates being favoured for certain roles because of their gender, and the accomplishments of certain employees being downplayed or overemphasised because of their gender.
To tackle gender bias, it is vital that people of all genders are given equal opportunities to succeed and are not treated or judged differently because of their gender. There are plenty of resources and training initiatives available that are designed to remove gender bias from the workplace and the wider world, including Virtual College’s online training course ‘Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity in the Workplace’.
The contrast effect is a type of unconscious bias that occurs when you compare two different events, items or people against each other instead of judging them individually based on their own merits or drawbacks.
It can happen if you have to make a final decision and end up judging your options in competition with each other instead of how suitable they are for their intended purpose.
This is mainly an issue in the workplace when you have two candidates or employees to choose between for a role, promotion or leadership position, and end up comparing them with each other and altering your ability to make a fair decision.
To avoid the contrast effect, make sure that you return to the specifications of the decision you are trying to make and ensure that your decision is based on individual merit, not a preference over something or someone else.
The halo effect is a form of unconscious bias in which one particularly great feature about a person or item means that you view everything else as positive.
Similar to confirmation bias and affinity bias, the halo effect can cause us to overlook negative factors and overemphasise the positive ones. This ‘tunnel vision’ may also be caused by another type of bias, such as favouring someone because of their gender or appearance.
In the workplace, your assessment of employees or potential employees may be skewed by the halo effect if they have done something particularly impressive or helpful in the past. A glowing reputation may affect your judgement of someone’s more recent behaviour or performance, preventing a fair judgment from being made.
To counteract the halo effect, always ensure that your judgment is not being affected by any prior assumptions or impressive characteristics, and consult multiple sources to ensure that your final decision or judgment is unbiased.
Research suggests that unconscious bias comes from our brain’s automatic judgement of new people and situations based on previous experiences and existing knowledge. This leads us to form opinions and attitudes that influence our perception without realising.
However, some experts say that we should not dismiss unconscious bias as something we have no control over, as you can overcome unconscious bias and dismissing it as automatic removes the need to challenge prejudiced beliefs.
Unconscious bias training or implicit bias training is designed to expose people to their own bias’ and provide them with the tools to dismantle these opinions. The training is often a part of company culture to promote a more diverse and inclusive workplace and ensure that staff are not making decisions informed by their own unconscious bias.
Biased words or biased language describes certain phrases and terms that are considered prejudiced because they exclude or offend certain groups. Biased language may be used within the workplace without people understanding the negative meaning behind it, which in turn may make certain employees feel uncomfortable or underrepresented.
Examples of biased words include ‘blacklisted’, ‘cakewalk’ and ‘mankind’.
Once you understand the different types of bias and how it can affect your judgement and instinctive reactions to people, events and places, you can start counteracting these attitudes and make fairer assessments or decisions. Unlearning subconscious behaviour isn’t easy, but it’s a vital step towards equality in all areas of life, including the workplace.
If you’d like to learn more about the cause of unconscious bias, how it can affect what happens in the workplace and how best to tackle it, we offer an online ‘Inclusive Behaviour and Unconscious Bias’ course suitable for all business professionals.