Your decisions are more heavily influenced by unconscious bias than you may realise and influence your attitudes and how you behave towards other people. You may think that you are making a solid, rational decision based on weighing up the evidence but it will still be driven by instinctive feelings as much as by rational thought. That hidden drive affects everything, from what you’ll eat for dinner to who you’ll pick to put in place your new social media strategy.
The best choice is a Generation Y-er, not the Baby Boomer, right? This could be an accurate assumption, but it’s not always the case. It’s not wise to base a decision on an idea or belief that doesn’t have the facts to support it.
There are many times when we might frame our unconscious bias as common sense. However, your Xbox playing, mobile app developing Baby Boomer may be more tech-savvy than most.
By assigning the project to a younger, less experienced person, you could potentially sacrifice quality or miss out on an innovative idea. Evaluating competency based on age is a common mistake and one that could be costly.
Or have you ever worked with or hired someone who reminded you of another person?
It’s a subtle, but real form of unconscious bias. The feelings and opinions you associate with another person can easily influence the way you see someone else. This might be positive or negative but seldom an accurate picture.
Our brains are hardwired to make unconscious decisions, because the number of choices we face every day would be overwhelming if we had to consciously evaluate every single one.
That means there is a direct link between our unconscious thinking and our actions and behaviour. And when it comes to making decisions it's important to know they are not based on bias.
So how do we deal with this when it happens so quickly?
The key to understanding and rising above our unconscious bias begins with self-awareness. Because unconscious bias happens so fast and almost before we have even noticed it, we need to start building awareness of it earlier and in different situations.
For example, next time you are waiting for your train on your commute have a look around you and observe how fast your brain makes associations between how a person is dressed or the way they talk and your assumptions of their social class, job or characteristics.
Pay particular attention to your choices when you are feeling tired, rushed or stressed, as these situations tend to activate our biases.
Become more aware of how fast you agree with a group of people the next time you are having a discussion. We do this naturally and we will often adopt others’ biases because of an inner need to belong – we will even seek out others who appear to have similar thoughts and feelings as these serve to validate our own.
Bias and prejudice may often have been something someone has told you, or that you heard as a third party. As such, they're not always your own original opinion but one you have adopted. It may have been adopted recently, or a long time ago, and the older it is, the more tricky it may be to overcome its influence.
So beginning to explore the source of your bias is the first step and simply to become more aware of when it is kicking in.
Whenever you are presented with a situation or event get into the habit of asking lots of questions.
Often information we have heard or been influenced towards by other people, or our own experiences are the source of bias. If your mind is free from such bias and assumptions, it will typically approach the event with a clean slate, but with the clear intention of determining what it is.
Recognising this dependence on the past, or that the reflection of the past we measure against is not actually the thing we experience right now is a very useful way to overcome bias.
Mindfulness practice can also help with rising above unconscious bias because it allows you to slow down and to simply observe your thoughts and any assumptions you might be making without judgement or action.
The next time you are faced with a decision take a step back, explore your emotions around it and get behind any unconscious bias that you can identify.
Ask lots of questions of both yourself and others. Slow down.
These simple steps can help you make better and clearer decisions and feel more relaxed as a result.
The Advantage is a two-day experiential learning workshop designed to raise awareness of adaptability, critical thinking, empathy, integrity, optimism, being proactive and resilience. Questioning assumptions and unconscious bias is a key component of critical thinking. The Advantage is being delivered to a range of clients – from the NHS to youth offending teams and senior managers. Emma-Sue Prince has written a book called The Advantage, on which the training is based.
About Emma Sue Prince
Emma Sue is author of The Advantage – the 7 key soft skills you need to get ahead published by Pearson Business. She has designed an experiential learning workshop based on these skills: adaptability, empathy, integrity, optimism, being proactive, critical thinking and resilience and is currently licensing trainers to deliver these.
Emma Sue provides consultancy in emerging economies and travels regularly to India, Bangladesh and Tanzania advising on a range of large funded projects. She runs a free membership site – Unimenta – for practitioners working in soft skills. When not working Emma Sue runs a local gospel choir in her home town of Godalming, Surrey and is an avid baker.