What is Unconscious Bias?
Unconscious biases are stereotypes, expectations, and beliefs, that we hold about certain groups of people. These biases might affect how we treat others, or what we expect from them, without us even realising. It is a natural human tendency to try to organise the world into categories, we all have these beliefs.
So, what’s the problem? The problem is that the unconscious bias we carry will be a product of our surroundings and experiences, and when those surroundings and experiences are inherently sexist, racist, and homophobic, to name but a few, our unconscious biases will also be.
Racism is not always overt
For example, studies, including this one from 2016 found racial bias in pain management, where doctors and nurses treating black patients were much less likely to prescribe analgesics than when they treated white patients. The doctors and nurses were not being overtly racist, nor would they have categorised themselves as such. Yet, clinicians were found to hold, quite unconsciously, false beliefs on the biological differences between black and white patients. That meant black patients were significantly less likely to receive pain medication for fractures compared to white patients, 57% to 75%, even in children.
Neither is sexism
We have unconscious biases about gender, too. Dr Pragya Agarwal talks about how unconscious biases hold women back in the workplace:
“Women are very emotional.
Men are more assertive.
Women are more caring.
All serial killers are men.
Men make better leaders.
Women are not good drivers.
How many of these do you believe? These are all generalized gendered statements that form
part of our everyday vocabulary.”
Assumptions are made about ability based on split second judgments, without the thinking mind being involved at all.
So what does this mean, we’re not accountable for our bias if it is unconscious? Not at all! We are accountable for asking the questions of ourselves: “what might my unconscious biases be?” And examining our own privilege.
Micro-aggressions are borne out of unconscious bias
Micro-aggressions, subtle expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, etc. that often are not intended to be harmful, go hand in hand with unconscious bias. Even well meant or benign seeming comments can be deeply offensive, or ignorant, here are some great examples of this. If we don't examine ourselves, we perpetuate what already exists.
If you can’t see or feel privilege, it is probably because you are benefiting from it.
It is not enough to think to oneself:
“Well, I am not racist so this doesn’t affect me.”
“I support Pride, so I’m not homophobic!”
When we live in a world that is inherently racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, ableist, and so forth, we have a responsibility to examine our own beliefs and backgrounds, and to educate and inform ourselves. Waiting for someone else to explain it to us only allows the status quo to continue.
Therapy can be a good place to untangle and explore your own beliefs, and to talk about how you have experienced unconscious bias and to heal from past trauma.
If you're a fan of tests, Project Implicit has a battery of them, and your answers will contribute to further global research on unconscious bias.