Understanding unconscious bias and 10 practical tips to overcome it

A human mind is extremely malleable. It takes shape early on in childhood and that is when prejudices, stereotypes and biases seep in. Or at least they take roots. I say this because we as a human civilization are notorious for harboring these prejudices and stereotypes and being biased in our attitudes towards others. Age doesn’t matter, even kids show this kind of behavior, albeit they being unaware of the consequences or even the significance of what they’re into.

Culturally, it is ingrained in our minds that people who are ‘like us’ are those with whom you get along well. Anything that is beyond this ‘like us’ is where we tend to be skeptical about. We attribute certain prejudices and stereotypes to certain sections of society and stick to it. Take for example the notion of a pop singer. The very word brings to our mind’s eye an image of a young, hip, stylish singer, with colored hair and trendy shiny clothes. I once had this image shattered when a very middle-aged woman, wearing a traditional Indian Kanjivaram saree with a big bindi (the red dot applied between the eyebrows) took to stage and crooned some of the most melodious pop hits. That was the famous singer Usha Uthup whom if you just listen to without knowing how she’d come across, you’d probably mistake her for the above description.

That is exactly what unconscious bias is all about, your mind makes its own notions and forms images of people in particular scenarios. So when you say scientist, you look for someone who’s mature, with graying hair and a calm demeanor. When you encounter a scientist who is a twenty something wearing a tee and tight jeans, your mind will be shocked.

Our minds also form biases in several other scenarios:

  1. Gender roles: When you say homemaker, you always think of a woman. There are men who are choosing to be homemakers while the wife works.
  2. Skin color: A lot of prejudice is still seen when it comes to skin color. A white is considered ‘pretty’ and ‘beautiful’ not realizing that blacks and Hispanics and East Asians are beautiful in their own right too.
  3. Physical ability: The idea that those who face physical disability would not be able to perform certain kinds of jobs. These biases have been challenged by those who drive, work on computers, teach, play sports and have normal lives of their own despite their disability.
  4. Cultural background: In certain parts of the world, people coming from specific cultural backgrounds are looked down upon, doubted for their abilities or even their honesty or patriotism and are generally overlooked when it comes to hiring in sensitive roles.

How does our brain form these biases?

Most of the biases that humans harbor find roots in their childhood experiences. The way we repeatedly see others being treated is the way our minds find it to be true. Moreover, human minds find shortcuts when it cannot find deep information regarding something. It fills the gaps and connects the dots with its own stories which then becomes hardened beliefs. The experiences we have with people around us in our childhood and growing years, all that behavior you saw with your teachers, parents, neighbors, friends and family, gets ingrained in a child’s mind.

Having said that, not all biases are formed in childhood. Still further, some biases manifest in different forms in different situations. So if your family has had a belief that people from specific cultures or race are not trustworthy, you will carry that bias even in your personal relationships, the way you hire people for your company and the way you make close friends. In countries where too much diversity is seen, such biases in social life are less obvious than in those where the majority of the population is homogenous. Also, whether a society is inclusive in nature determines how the people treat each other. This does not move away from the fact that a a supposedly liberal society like the one in the US harbors deep rooted biases against the blacks, so much seen during the past few years. The ‘Black lives matter’ movement brought to fore the paradox of a liberal American society even in today’s times, decades after America put a ban on apartheid.

How to eliminate unconscious bias

These biases are such of which even you wouldn’t be aware of. Given a choice, your mind will quickly choose something favorable, ruling over another that is worthy but of which you hold a bias in your mind. Several sectors and companies prefer men over women. There is tremendous homophobia still seen even in the corporate sector. Although the organized sector is taking all steps towards inclusivity, it would still take individual efforts to move away from such biases

  1. Self monitoring is the best way. Flag your thoughts when you find yourself behaving in a biased manner
  2. Understand the reasons or the triggers why you hold such a bias and counter it with facts and rationale why it doesn’t hold merit
  3. Network beyond your comfort zone. Know people from all walks of life and be non-judgmental at all times.
  4. Remember that the socially dominant ‘norm’ need not be the best option always. The minority groups also hold merit
  5. Avoid biting the bait laid out by the media that portrays misplaced ideas about beauty and intelligence.
  6. Identify your biases in time. The most common biases are about women, single women, blacks, homosexuals, religious minorities, physically disabled, obese or those from economically underprivileged sections of society.
  7. At a collective level, companies, families, schools and organizations must create awareness about such biases and put in place systems and processes that do not allow them to creep in. A merit-based selection system, inclusive policy, continuous awareness and penalizing biased behavior can undo a lot of damage that is already set in
  8. Do not assume ever. Monitor your mind’s thoughts and check when a bias is visible in your decisions
  9. Never make impulsive decisions.
  10. Find more information about those against whom you find yourself holding biases. Knowing in deep most often helps remove the bias

In a world that is heading towards the knowledge economy, such kind of biases do more harm than good to the entire human civilization and keep the truly meritorious and deserving from utilizing their fullest potential.

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