What is Unconscious Bias?
Psychologists tell us that our unconscious biases are simply our tendency to prefer people who are like us, sound like us, and share our interests. Social psychologists call this phenomenon “so-cial categorization” whereby we routinely and rapidly sort people in to groups. This preference bypasses our normal, rational, and logical thinking. We use these processes very effectively but the categories we use to sort people are not logical, modern, or perhaps even legal. These neurological “short cuts” can lead to bias and poor decision making.
UNCONSCIOUS BIAS IS HARD-WIRED
Neuropsycholigists tell us cognitive bias is built into the very structure of the brain. Our unconscious brain processes and sifts vast amounts of information looking for patterns (200,000 times more than the conscious mind). When the unconscious brain sees two things occurring together it begins to expect them to be seen together and begins to wire them together neurally.
Brain imaging scans have demonstrated that when people are shown images of faces that differ from their own faces, the experience activates an irrational prejudgment in the brain’s alert system for danger; the amygdala. This happens in less than a tenth of a second. Our associations and biases are likely to be activated every time we encounter a member of a particular group, even if we consciously reject a group stereotype.
RESEARCH ON BIAS & ASSUMPTIONS
We all like to think that we are objective scholars who judge people solely on their credentials and achievements, but copious research shows that every one of us has a lifetime of experience and cultural history that shapes the review process. The results from controlled research studies demonstrate that people often hold implicit or unconscious assumptions that influence their judgements. Recognizing biases and other influences not related to the quality of candidates can help reduce their impact on your search and review of candidates.
OVERCOMING UNCONSIOUS BIASES
SOME TIPS ABOUT HOW TO OVERCOME BIASES AND ASSUMPTIONS
- Remind yourself of the need to be fair and objective at key times, either in your head or with written reminders such as posters and cards.
- Spend sufficient time (15-20 minutes) evaluating each applicant. Take breaks during extended or emotional discussions.
- Know where you are in terms of your motivations to change or manage your biases. It can be unrealistic to expect to change deeply held beliefs. It may be all you can do is expect to manage them in key situations (e.g. appraisals, interviews, etc.).
- Learn about research on biases and assumptions.
- Discuss research on biases and assumptions and consciously strive to
minimize their influence on your evaluation of candidates.
- Develop criteria for evaluating candidates and apply them consistently to all applicants.
- Evaluate each candidate’s entire application; don’t depend too heavily on only one element such as the letters of recommendation, or the prestige of the degree-granting institution or postdoctoral program.
- Be able to defend every decision for rejecting or retaining a candidate.
- Periodically evaluate your decisions and consider whether qualified women and underrepresented minorities are included. If not, consider whether evaluation biases and assumptions are influencing your decisions.
WHEN IS UNCONSCIOUS BIAS MOST ACTIVE?
Stress, frustration, anger, and other emotional times.
Bias is more likely to influence behavior when someone is cognitively strained, such as when emotionally stressed, under time constraints, or distracted. Bias is also more likely when someone is operating on “auto-pilot,” or acting without being self-reflective and mindful of one’s motivations and thinking.
POTENTIAL ASSUMPTIONS & UNCONSCIOUS BIASES
UNCONSCIOUS BIAS ON THE SEARCH PROCESSWomen and minorities may be subject to unduly high expectations in areas such as number and quality of publications, name recognition, or personal acquaintance with a committee member. Candidates from institutions other than the major research universities that have trained most of our faculty may be undervalued. Qualified candidates from institutions such as historically black universities, four-year colleges, government, or the private sector might offer innovative, diverse, and valuable perspectives on research and teaching. The work, ideas, and findings of women or minorities may be undervalued or unfairly attributed to a research director or collaborators despite contrary evidence in publications or letters of reference. The ability of women or minorities to run a research group, raise funds, and supervise students and staff may be underestimated. Assumptions about possible family responsibilities and their effect on the candidate’s career path may negatively influence evaluation of merit, despite evidence of productivity. Negative assumptions about whether female or minority candidates will “fit in” to existing environment can influence evaluation. The professional experience candidates may have acquired through an alternative career path may be undervalued.
DISCOVER YOUR BIASES
There are incredible resources that can help you explore your unconscious biases.
Harvard Implicit Bias Test [https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html]
Greater awareness is the first step to address negative group associations.
Invisible Gorilla Video [ http://www.theinvisiblegorilla.com/videos.html ]
Video examples of cognitive biases and perception tests.
The Invisible Gorilla [ http://www.theinvisiblegorilla.com/overview.html ] Book by: Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons
Everday Bias [ http://everydaybias.com/ ] Book by: Howard Ross
Blindspot [ http://spottheblindspot.com/the-book/ ] Book by: Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald