What is unconscious bias?
Unconscious (or implicit) bias is a term that describes the associations we hold, outside our conscious awareness and control. Unconscious bias affects everyone.
Unconscious bias is triggered by our brain automatically making quick judgments and assessments. They are influenced by our background, personal experiences, societal stereotypes and cultural context. It is not just about gender, ethnicity or other visible diversity characteristics - height, body weight, names, and many other things can also trigger unconscious bias.
Unconscious bias can have a significant influence on our attitudes and behaviours, especially towards other people. It can influence key decisions in the workplace and can contribute to inequality, for example in selection and recruitment, appraisals, or promotion.
What can you do?
Be honest with yourself! By increasing our awareness of unconscious bias, we can start to mitigate against it. As an individual, it can be important to recognise and understand what biases you may have. It can be helpful to have discussions with others to explore biases. At Imperial, we offer unconscious bias training workshop for staff.
When making decisions, take your time and do not rush. Ensure that you justify decisions by considering the evidence available, and record the reasons for your decisions. Making decisions together as a team can help mitigate the biases of one individual. Be open to conversations and challenges around decisions and potential biases.
If you are taking part in a formal process, it is important to follow the College's policies and guidelines. For example, during the recruitment process, it is important to shortlist and interview based on the agreed essential criteria in the Person Specification. Using Imperial's template shortlist and interview assessment forms helps you evaluate objectively, using numerical scores. This helps to treat each person as an individual, assessing them on their own merits against the criteria, rather than comparing candidates against each other.
Types of bias and suggestions for action
This is not a comprehensive list but consider these types of unconscious bias:
Affinity or similarity bias
This bias can be described as the tendency to favour people who are like you in some way. For example, when hiring people, we may favour candidates who are similar to us or seem familiar, considering them a 'good fit' for the team. Instead, we should value diversity and be asking 'what will this person add to our team?'
Once we make a decision or form an opinion, we tend to look for, and value, further information that confirms this. You can think of confirmation bias as 'cherry picking' or 'wishful thinking'. We may end up interpreting things in a certain way, or ignoring other information that contradicts our confirmation bias. This can cause problems in the workplace if we fail to notice an issue or make misjudgements.
The halo effect
This occurs when one perceived positive feature or trait makes us view everything about a person in a positive way, giving them a 'halo'. However, we may not actually know that much about a person, and the halo effect can lead us to ignore other aspects. This is something to consider when making formal assessments for example. The 'horn effect' is the opposite - when we focus on one particularly negative feature.
There is a growing body of research on unconscious bias as well a number of guides, videos, and other resources online. Below are a few examples which might help you better understand unconscious bias:
- The Equality Challenge Unit have published a literature review of unconscious bias in higher education.
- The Royal Society has produced a briefing on unconscious bias.
- Project Implicit is a collaboration of American scientists who have created a range of online Implicit Association Tests.
- Dr Pete Jones, who delivered Imperial's 2016 Diversity Lecture, has a series of short videos about unconscious bias.