Apr 201613

What Is Unconscious Bias? (A Primer)

Bias may be used to describe both positive and negative mindsets towards individuals and groups.

Many references to bias refer to the persistent, harmful and unequal treatment of someone based solely on some characteristic they possess or their apparent membership in or identification with a particular group.

Recent research in brain science has given some insight into unconscious bias; our memory holds many things, including unconscious biases without our awareness that the biases even exists or that they influences our behaviors. The most effective strategies for “unlearning” bias are based on self-awareness and self-management.

For example: (1) be aware of common stereotypes and seek opportunities to recognize, experience and value diversity and the many examples of group members that disconfirm the stereotype; (2) intentionally think specific counter stereotypical thoughts whenever you encounter a member of the group associated with the stereotype; (3) increase diverse group and social contexts, including opportunities for familiarity and friendships which increase our ability to see people in a more individual manner; and, (4) participate in training which stresses appreciation rather than elimination of group differences.

An alief is an automatic or habitual belief that may be in conflict with an individual’s stated, explicit or espoused beliefs.  For example, a person who believes in racial equality may nonetheless have aliefs that cause them to treat people of different racial groups in subtly different ways.

Another example of unconscious bias is aversive racism which is characterized by subtle behaviors used to rationalize aversion to particular groups. As opposed to traditional, overt racism which is characterized by overt expressions of dislike for and discrimination against racial/ethnic minorities, aversive racism is characterized by more complex, ambivalent expressions and attitudes, such as “I am colorblind; I don’t pay attention to color.”

People who behave in an aversively racial way will often deny their racially motivated behavior; nevertheless they change their behavior when dealing with a member of another group in subtle and indirect ways. People whose behavior is characterized by aversive racism often sympathize with victims of past injustice, support the principle of racial equality, and regard themselves as non-prejudiced, but at the same time they harbor negative feelings, beliefs or uneasiness about other groups. These hidden attitudes are often transmitted to the people in the groups that are impacted through micro messages in body language, tone of voice and expression.

Reference: The Harvard implicit-association test (IAT) is a free online resource that is designed to detect the strength of a person's automatic association with certain groups based on characteristics such as race, religion, weight, skin tone, gender, etc. The Stereotype IATs measure associations between concepts that often reflect the strength to which a person holds a particular societal stereotype.

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