‘Unconscious biases’- Is there an exit to these thoughts?

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04 - 01 - 2021

5:00 min read

We all have thoughts ringing in our heads unconsciously round the clock. Irony is, we tend to act by those thoughts more than our conscious thinking. According to Sigmund Freud, Austrian neurologist, unconscious thoughts continue to influence behavior even though people are unaware of these underlying influences. On the other hand, biases with respect to all the aspects of living, be it gender, race, religion, etc are hard wired in our heads from a long time.

Defining Unconscious Biases

The University of California defines unconscious biases or implicit bias as “social stereotypes” about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. Unconscious bias is far more prevalent than conscious prejudice and often incompatible with one’s conscious values also, can activate unconscious attitudes and beliefs at times.

What triggers unciousous biases?

Parental or societal conditioning are the primary reasons for biased thinking, which are governed by the cultural norms. Patterns and association around the environment mould the brain's natural tendency to look for patterns and association is one of the reasons for bias formation. Implicit bias is a result of the brain's tendency to try to simplify the world because the brain is constantly inundated with more information than it could conceivably process, mental shortcuts make it faster and easier for the brain to sort through all of this data. Also, cultural conditioning, media portrayals, and upbringing can all contribute to the implicit associations that people form about the members of other social groups.

When does unconscious bias occur?

The nature of unconscious bias is tested and studied from the past three decades to understand its evolutionary behaviour. According to the Office of Diversity and Outreach, University of California, “Unconscious biases develop at an early age as biases emerge during middle childhood and appear to develop across childhood”. These biases have real world effects on behavior and are malleable which means, one can take steps to minimize the impact of unconscious bias.

Types of Unconscious Biases

‘Built in’ classifies unconscious biases into different types:

1. Confirmation Bias

is the inclination to draw conclusions about a situation or person based on the personal desires, beliefs and prejudices rather than on unbiased merit.

2. Similarity Bias

also known as affinity bias, is the tendency people have to connect with others who share similar interests, experiences, and backgrounds.

3. Gender Bias

is the tendency to prefer one gender over another gender.

4. Conformity Bias

also known as peer pressure, is the tendency people have to act similar to the people around them regardless of their own personal beliefs or idiosyncrasies.

5. Attribution bias

is a phenomenon where one tries to make sense of or judge a person’s behavior based on prior observations and interactions they had with that individual that make up their perception of them.

6. Horns effect

is the tendency people have to view another person negatively after learning something unpleasant or negative about them.

7. Contrast effect

is when one compares two or more things that they have come into contact with, either simultaneously or one-after-another, causing one to exaggerate the performance of one in contrast to the other.

How to deal with unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias can be addressed on two levels, one is based on individuals and other based on institutions.

Individual strategies include:

The first step is to promote self-awareness by recognizing one’s biases using the Implicit Association Test or any other instruments to assess bias. Understanding the nature of bias is also essential as it helps individuals approach their own biases in a more informed and open way. Opportunities to have discussions with others can also be helpful. Sharing one’s biases can help others feel more secure about exploring their own biases. It’s important to have these conversations in a safe space-individuals must be open to alternative perspectives and viewpoints.

Institutional strategies include:

Evidence suggests that providing unconscious bias training for faculty members reduces the impact of bias in the workplace. The institute must develop concrete, objective indicators & outcomes for hiring, evaluation, and promotion to reduce standard stereotypes. Also, standardized criteria should be developed to assess the impact of individual contributions in performance evaluations


Indra Nooyi, Former CEO of Pepsico says, “We need our own sisterhood to lead the next generation of women to an empowered road”. She means encouraging each other can break barriers and let everyone work together and grow. India is a place dominated by working women but instead of coming together and breaking the traditional moulds they decide to internalize the biases and follow them. It is not easy to recognise and erase biases that run by the men’s bloodline. We can just ask ourselves, do we act and behave by the forever believed stereotypes leading to unconscious bias?

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