• BLOG
  • blog

Unconscious bias: human perception in the modern age 

The origins of stereotypes

In 2011, Proctor and Gamble received one million job applications for 2,000 roles. Unfortunately, oversubscription to certain job applications impacts different demographics differently. For example, research shows that ethnic minorities have to settle for lower-level positions, which creates a huge gap in earnings compared with ethnic majorities. This is one example of how bias is prevalent in the workplace. While bias is a preference for one group over another, discrimination is a behaviour, which involves the unjust treatment of a certain group. This is driven by our negative attitudes towards the group, known as prejudice. Closely connected to this emotional element of person perception is the cognitive aspect: stereotypes. These are beliefs that we hold about the group. Evolutionarily speaking, stereotypes made our lives easier, because they allowed us to make mental shortcuts under pressure. However, our world now celebrates differences, and the workplace is trying to help people override the deep-rooted mental processes of our ancestors. But how should we define them and in what ways do they affect employment wellbeing?

The mystery of unconscious bias:

The phrase ‘unconscious bias’ has gained increasing attention in the workplace. Workshops aiming to alter people’s unconscious biases essentially target people’s attitudes, which are defined as associations in memory between an object, such as your teenagers, and an evaluation, such as negative. In Psychology, there is a popular line of thinking that we have explicit and implicit attitudes. Initially, researchers believed that implicit attitudes were stable, whereas explicit attitudes were malleable. However, mounting research suggests that our implicit attitudes are actually less stable than our explicit attitudes. Therefore, it would be erroneous to conclude that someone has a deep-rooted prejudice against teenagers based on the individual’s performance in the infamous Implicit Association Test (IAT). This is because implicit attitudes are, in fact, heavily influenced by the context, such as one’s mood or the immediate surroundings in which the test is taken.

Perhaps more crucially, there is overuse of the word ‘unconscious’ and a lack of clarity around the term ‘automatic’. The IAT elicits attitudes about sensitive issues, such as race, gender, age etc., by asking participants to respond to stimuli as quickly as possible. Responses are therefore regarded as a window into the unconscious. But what exactly are we unconscious of? Bertram Gawronski argues we can be unaware of: (1) the origins of the attitude; (2) the content of the attitude; and (3) the effects that the attitude has on our judgments and behaviour. However, his studies have only found possible evidence for (3). In other words, people are actually very aware of the origin and content of their implicit attitudes. Asking people to express their attitudes about certain groups, however, is controversial, and so they are unwilling to divulge this information. The time pressure element of implicit measures helps researchers avoid this issue of self-presentation concerns. So, due to the complexity of attitudes, researchers encourage the avoidance of statements like ‘implicit attitudes are unconscious’ and promote a more nuanced and realistic approach. This argues that attitudes are implicit if judgments result from a process that is automatic, which is defined as unintentional, efficient, uncontrollable or unconscious. In a test like the IAT, it is unlikely that every judgment will be automatic, and companies should be careful when making claims about someone’s implicit attitudes. Terminology aside, the fact that there is evidence that people are unaware of the impact of their attitudes on their judgment is an issue. Let’s explore how our prejudices translate into discrimination in the real world…

Manifestations of discrimination

Expressions of formal discrimination, such as refusal to hire individuals or derogatory language, have mostly been legally prohibited. In this way, employers need to carefully consider how discrimination may occur in less obvious ways. One area that has received a lot of attention is the use of algorithms in hiring. Applicant tracking systems, for example, allow companies to review many more applications than a human. It’s programmed to detect key words or other filters, which relate to desired skills or experience. One of these filters may be the location of the applicant. This is important because those who live further away are more likely to quit, and are therefore less desirable. However, due to racial segregation, ethnic minorities often live in these areas, and so filtering by distance would be discrimination. Companies have therefore begun omitting the applicant’s location from the algorithm to combat this issue. Another example comes from an empirical study on gender-based discrimination where researchers explored the reason why a gender-neutral advert promoting STEM careers was not seen by many women. The authors concluded that the algorithm optimized cost-effectiveness, which meant that the advert was seen less by women because they are a more expensive demographic to target.  So, even if an employer intends their advertisement to be bias-free, economic factors can still lead to discrimination.  

Another way in which discrimination occurs without intention is interpersonal discrimination, which consists of non-verbal (e.g. avoiding eye contact, grimacing), verbal (e.g. dismissive language), and para-verbal behaviours (e.g. tone of voice). As it is more subtle, there are no laws to protect individuals or groups from this type of discrimination. According to Hebl et al. (2016), this means that it “can have insidious consequences on the individual and organization”. If you witness your colleague experiencing interpersonal discrimination, the authors suggest:

  1. Set social norms by displaying tolerance, acceptance and appreciation of diversity to create a discrimination-free environment.
  2. Use your power to improve their circumstances by providing access to larger social and business-related networks that would otherwise be unavailable to the individual.
  3. Join and support affinity groups to tackle discrimination, which legitimizes the concerns of the group if other employees are unsupportive.

So, while the mechanisms underlying discriminatory behaviour are still being understood, its effects are evidently very real. Companies risk losing highly valuable employees, and, more crucially, the individual’s wellbeing is severely affected. This is not a battle for the individual to fight; organisations need to take responsibility if we stand a chance of overriding the negative implications of these long-standing cognitive processes.