Unconscious Bias: where are they?

Updated: Dec 2, 2019

by Andréa de Paiva

This article was inspired on the discussion panel about the theme from the First National Forum of Audiovisual Female Leaderships in Brazil which I had the honor of mediating.

Have you ever thought about how many times you misjudged something or someone? I could have been when you decided where to invest your money, when you forced yourself to eat a whole meal even feeling full thinking "I've payed for that, so I have to eat everything", or when you hired someone to work in your company. There are many situations in which we can be influenced by unconscious bias, as we will discuss in this article.


In order to understand what is unconscious bias we have to firstly understand a very simple pattern of operation of the brain: the heuristics. These are mental shortcuts created based on our experiences. Since thinking consumes a lot of energy, the brain uses such a "trick" to help accelerate processes and save resources. Therefore, the experiences we live are stored and can be accessed through shortcuts. That is, as soon as the brain identifies a group of elements that are similar to a known experience, it uses the shortcut instead of processing all the information received and anticipates the results.

For example, try to read this phrase: the brian is an aazming adn poferwul mcaihne. What did you read? Was it hard? When we read, the brain uses mental shortcuts to anticipate the end of each word and save energy. This is why when reading some text in our mother tongue it is not necessary to read each word until the end [1]. This is a the way heuristics work

However, such anticipated interpretations might not always be correct. And, when they are wrong, they are called unconscious bias, which are systematic errors of judgement that happen without conscious awareness. In behavioral economics, there are many bias that habe been discussed, such as the sunk cost fallacy, which happens when we persist in an action because it had a cost. For instance, when we go to a restaurant and the food is not that good, but it is well served, and we force ourselves to eat it all just because we payed for it. Another sample of unconscious bias is social conformity, when we follow the behavior of the group. There is also the availability bias, very used in marketing, when we remember more of or even prefer something just because it was more frequently present in our lives recently.

But, after all, why can unconscious bias be so dangerous? Because they they can influence our decisions without our awareness of it. Or even worse, they can do it when we think we are being reasonable and making a conscious decision. Prejudice, for instance, is most of the times associated with some kind of unconscious bias. It consists of a misjudgment based on information previously stored. This register is formed according to beliefs and opinions that are out dated or completely fake which are spread socially.

More than this, many heuristics - and consequently the bias - that we create are a reflection of our culture. In interacting with our many social groups, we create mental shortcuts based on such experiences. Moreover, the media reproduces several of the most present standards in culture, helping to disseminate them and to strengthen them even more, as it is possible to observe in the image bellow from 2011. In this case, the advertisement reinforces the bias assuming domestic services are female responsibilities.

Several studies show how women are still treated differently at work. For instance, an article published at The Lancet in 2019 about a Canadian study, there are mainly two ways to earn a scholarship: the first one the project's potential is analysed and, in the second one, the researcher's potential is analysed. The study reveals that when the second one is adopted, male scientists are prioritised [2].

Do you remember the video that became very famous of a British specialist in political sciences from South Korea being interviewed by BBC when children invade the room? In the back you can see an oriental woman trying to catch the children desperately. What was the first idea that came to your head as soon as you saw that? That she was the nanny? An anonymous research conducted in a Facebook forum revealed that 70% of the participants thought she was the nanny [3]. This result shows how different ethnical origins are usually associated to determined social conditions and activities.

The research Women in the Workplace 2018 realised in the US by LeanIn.Org e McKinsey & Co. shows that, to each 100 women promoted to manager positions, 130 men are promoted. Only around 18% of American women who work occupy a C-level position and this number falls to 3% when considered black women [4].

Back to the heuristics, we know that they are formed based on the experiences and reinforced by repetition. In this way, when the media repeats biased cultural patterns , it is not only spreading them, but also reinforcing them even more. This problem aggravates when we consider the algorithms from the social media and streaming platforms. These algorithms work organising the content to be shown according to the user's preference. This means that if you like a specific kind of news, for instance, more content similar, or related, to the one liked will be shown to you. Consequently, you will see less of a divergent content. Therefore, although the internet offers a world of information and diversity, each time more we are surrounded by what is similar to us, by the same standards, having the same heuristics being reinforced and, as a consequence, the same biases.

But how can we change this? The first step is education. We must recognise that all of us are influenced by several different unconscious biases. After this, it will become easier to pay attention to when we are being influenced by one and try to change that. However, specifically in the case of biases that impact social relations, to enhance changes - personal or not - besides informing, it is necessary to stimulate people to be more empathetic. To be able to put yourself in the other's shoes is essential to help understand how disrespect and unfairness can hurt. There are already many initiatives which envolve immersive education through virtual reality. They help to experience how it is to be the other, like being a person of a different gender, ethnic origin, age or social class [5]. More informed individuals can help to recreate and reinforce not biased patterns and heuristics. And this process can be made through the creation of nudges to induce behaviour change.

But, due to the complexity of this subject, which is explored by the economist Richard Thaler who won the Nobel in Economics in 2017, we will discuss in a future article.

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[1] MOSS, L. (2015) Why your brain can read jumbled letters

[2] RAYMOND, J., GOODMAN, M. (2019) Funders should evaluate projects, not people. The Lancet VOLUME 393, ISSUE 10171, P494-495

[3] AGARWAL, P. (2018) Here Is How Unconscious Bias Holds Women Back. Forbes.

[4] PHAM, T. (2016) Think You're Not Biased Against Women At Work? Read This. Forbes.

[5] Can VR teach us how to deal with sexual harassment? The Guardian.

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© 2018 by Andréa de Paiva