By Lesley Aitcheson: Unconscious bias is a very fashionable concept right now in business and education sectors in Europe and the US. What is it? It’s our innate people preferences which are then reinforced by social conditioning – we tend to prefer ‘people like us’. These preferences are often automatic and outside our conscious awareness, but are still at the heart of decisions we make when we think we are being rational. It’s compelling as an explanation for why discrimination persists even though we have stringent laws and policies to prevent it, but unconscious bias covers so much more and is secretly ruling so many of our decisions and judgements.

1.Daniel Khaneman won a Nobel Prize for his ground breaking book, Thinking, Fast and Slow in which he characterised the two systems of processing which make up our thinking. The first, System 1 is fast, intuitive and makes rapid associations – it’s that ‘gut instinct’ that helps us when we need to make decisions fast and the snap judgements that get us into trouble when we get it wrong. System 2 is the slow, deliberate and effortful thinking that we use when we concentrate on a project plan or the household budget, for example. It takes energy and falls away if we are distracted. Kahneman said that System 1 is the “secret author of many of the choices and judgements” we make. Even Khaneman said that he could not always fight the effects of System 1 and perhaps we shouldn’t try – it’s part of our make-up and probably one of the reasons we survived so long. Being able to read faces and body language quickly will have helped us unconsciously decide whether to fight or run in the early days of humanity. The trick is to notice when you are over-relying on your System 1 to decide what people are like and then behaving as though it’s true without checking – a sure recipe for misunderstanding and a guarantee that unconscious bias is secretly ruling your life!

2. If your interviewer has a warm drink during your interview, you stand more chance of getting the job!
Three scientists, Ackerman, Nocera, and Bargh tested how three dimensions of haptic experience—weight, texture, and hardness— can unconsciously influence judgments and decisions about unrelated events, situations, and objects. The researchers conducted a series of six experiments, asking participants to hold heavy or light clipboards, solve rough or smooth puzzles, and touch hard or soft objects and this unconsciously influenced their impressions and judgements when asked to make decisions about unrelated people and situations. They observed many effects, including evidence that “heavy objects made job candidates appear more important, rough objects made social interactions appear more difficult, and hard objects increased rigidity in negotiations. Basic tactile sensations are thus shown to influence higher social cognitive processing in dimension-specific and metaphor-specific ways.”

3. It’s easy to ‘prime’ people into doing things they are not aware of
Priming involves making suggestions to people without their awareness, usually before you ask them to perform a task. If you were shown swatches of red fabric, you might call out ‘poppy’ a fraction more quickly when shown a picture of that flower. So priming can elicit a particular behaviour when you have been exposed to a stimulus (e.g. showing you the colour red) that encourages that behaviour. In one experiment, adults ate more snack foods following exposure to snack food advertising and their consumption was unrelated to hunger.

4. Find a coin in a phone booth and you become nicer In the 70s, two researchers, Isen and Levin, conducted some experiments on kindness. In one, they randomly placed a coin in the return slot of a phone booth. After a caller had finished their call, a confederate would walk past the phone booth and “accidentally” drop a folder full of papers. A statistically significant additional number of people agreed to help with picking up the papers if they had found a coin in the phone booth. The researchers speculated that was because we are more likely to be kind if we perceive that the ‘universe’ has been good to us!

5. The taller you are, the bigger your pay check
It’s a tough message, this one, but it looks like it might be true – Tall men earn more because they are perceived to be more intelligent and powerful. These findings come from an Australian study, but they are also backed up by similar UK and American studies indicating that a man who is 6 ft tall can expect as much as 1.5 times more salary than a counterpart who is only 5’10”. Are you finding that hard to read? Well it’s even harder to face up to: those extra pounds or dollars really add up over the years. Professor Andrew Leigh, who led the study at the Australian National University, feels that these findings are probably the result of people unconsciously believing that tall people command more respect which inadvertently leads to greater reward.

6. People tend to prefer Brian to Karen!
A group of psychologists (so much for knowing better!) preferred to hire Brian Miller over Karen Miller even though the application packs and experience were identical. In a now famous experiment, participants evaluating the job applications preferred Brian over Karen by 2:1. When looking at more detailed information, they raised four times as many objections or cautions to Karen as opoosed to Brian. (Steinpreis, Anders, Ritzke, Sex Roles 41, 1999). This is pretty scary when you keep reminding yourself that the applications were identical! The only difference was the name.

7. A child helps your career – but only if you’re a dad In an on line article in the New York Times last year (September 6th 2014), The Motherhood Penalty vs. the Fatherhood Bonus, it was made clear that having a child is possibly the worst thing a woman can do for her career. The article focusses on the benefits for men and the penalties for women of deciding to become parents. Fathers are more likely to be hired than childless men and are more likely to see their salaries rise from the point they become dads. Even allowing for adjustments such as differences in work patterns, types of jobs and salaries of spouses, fathers take home more money. The schemas, or internal models we hold around dad bringing home the bacon and mum staying home to be the carer, run so deep that even legislation cannot fully correct the imbalance.

8. The more attractive you are, the more positively you are viewed
The ‘halo effect’ means that people who are viewed as attractive are more likely to be considered talented and competent that those who are not. This well-known cognitive bias means that our general impression of someone is likely to colour our judgement about their specific abilities – we have a propensity to view them as more able than they are. We see this in celebrity culture in particular – if we think some is nice, we are more like to think of them as intelligent, funny or generous.

9. Confirmation bias – when you know you’re right
Most people know they do this, but seem powerless to stop it – confirmation bias is when we look for evidence to support what we already believe whilst dismissing evidence which discounts it. Pause for a moment and reflect – do you think that your beliefs are founded on years of experience and cool, rational judgement? That may be true, but most people are unconsciously selective – they tend to give greater weight to anything that confirms their opinions and less to even compelling evidence to the contrary. It takes a brave soul to admit, even to themselves, that they’ve got it wrong.

10. Cognitive Dissonance – trying to manage ambiguity
Ever had that sickly feeling when something you ‘know’ to be true is probably not really so, but somehow you’ve got to square it with yourself (and anyone who asks)? Welcome to cognitive dissonance! If you are emotionally committed to what you already know, then it’s even harder to give up your original ideas in the face of contrary evidence. The sickly, humiliated feeling you are trying to push down will probably have you rationalising your position in no time. If you doubt this, try reading Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me!) Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris, Elliot Aronson – there are plenty of examples from public life to illustrate the point, though it may make you squirm as you read!

Conclusion Bias is inevitable and ever-present. If you are human, you have it! Big businesses are now becoming aware of the high cost to productivity of unconscious bias. Raising awareness of the ways in which we are influenced without our conscious knowledge gives us greater control in creating a more inclusive environment and managing our unconscious biases, which in turn leads to greater productivity and (dare we say it?) happiness!


Written by Lesley Aitcheson

Lesley is a learning and development specialist, psychotherapist and business coach.

Before starting LJA Learning and Development in 2001, Lesley held senior line management and operational roles in a range of well-respected organizations and across a range of sectors, including transport, finance, retail and leisure.

Lesley’s corporate career provided her not only with business experience, but also with insights into the complex dynamics between the needs of organizations and the individuals who work for them.