I don’t want to say “I told you so” because the circumstances are so tragic. But on reading of the ineffectiveness of standardised unconscious bias training programmes given to police forces in the US, I couldn’t help thinking of that phrase. When these were announced and similarly when corporations go through the motions I sometimes groan internally. Some of these unconscious bias trainings are well-intentioned, and can be part of a structured programme, but, when you understand the roots of unconscious bias and how it is encoded in the brain, you quickly realise a short online training will have no impact. Zilch. Nada. It’s just not possible.

Why not you may ask – surely building awareness about our decision-making approaches is a good thing and will have an impact? Well in theory, yes, in practice, hardly. Obviously, this will depend on the programme but the classic short 30-minute online training (or longer) will have minimal impact. The reason is simple – the brain is one massive hodgepodge of conscious and unconscious bias. You could argue it is designed to make rapid, biased decisions just about all the time, and for good reason. Certain biases help to keep us alive and healthy. Treating conscious and unconscious bias as a defect to be ‘cured’ is not going to help. It’s not a design flaw, rather it’s a fundamental feature of the brain.

This is in fact why short online unconscious bias training is doomed to failure – you’re fighting a lifetime of natural and slowly built and reinforced biases with a short online intervention. It’s like trying to become an Olympic swimmer by watching a 30-minute video and not doing anything else. No chance.

Let’s first start to understand what bias is and how it is encoded in the brain. Bias is a natural state we can consider:

  1. Bias, which are our preferences for one thing over another. Though bias has a negative connotation and a feeling of something darker than a simple preference, it is not. This is the basis for bias which is often overt. I may not like cabbage and so be biased against cabbage. I may not like hard rock music and so be biased against hard rock. I may not like a particular football team and be biased against that team. When we start thinking about bias in these terms, we can see we are biased about just about everything – often very openly. Changing people’s overt biases can be very difficult, nigh on impossible even.
  2. Unconscious bias, this refers to bias we may be unaware of, and also one that may go against our best interests. I may have a bunch of biases about women and so when I want a female violinist for my orchestra unconsciously decide that a man auditioning for the same part is better than a woman despite wanting the best violinist for my orchestra. There have been a number of high-profile cases in orchestras globally and most now audition behind screens to remove bias from the auditioning process – thereby massively increasing female participation in professional orchestras. Unconscious because it is below our awareness, we will deny it, can’t actually identify it, and it may actually go against what we are trying to achieve.
  3. Instincts are generally not considered in courses on unconscious bias – unfortunately because understanding these is critical. Instincts are inbuilt preferences that are similar across all people and cultures. We have an instinct for high-calorie food and so prefer in general high-calorie foods…causing multiple problems in modern western society. We also have in-group instincts of naturally building groups and in-groups and out-groups. This is where many problems arise in the world today and underlies some of the world’s most horrific crimes against humanity. That instinct can be measured in newborns and most of the time manifests in relatively harmless situations such as in-groups of sports fans.
  4. Associations are what we can consider learned biases. They are built on experiences that wire up our brain to build automatic responses to the world around us. Stinging nettles hurt, don’t dip your finger in boiling water, etc. We have masses, and masses of associations built up over our lifetimes, from what is good and bad, what food you like, what film stars represent what, what cars are luxury cars, what clothing represents, stereotypes of national cultures, the list goes on, and on, and on, and on.
  5. Bias blindspot: this is a term that is particularly useful because it refers to our ability to think we’re not biased, particularly if we have done an unconscious bias training, while still being biased. Important to note is that smarter people tend to think they are less susceptible to bias while being just as biased as the rest of us.

Now most of these operate in parallel but we can see that add all of the above up and we get a very biased brain that is constantly making biased decisions. They have to be biased, they are based not just on past experience and assumptions that we build on those past experiences, but on everything we have been exposed to in our lives; the films we watch, the news we consume, the books we read, and the conversations we have. 

You may then think that breaking bias is a hopeless task. Well not quite. If we understand the brain, we can break them down. This is what I have been doing for years – breaking these biases down into the way they are encoded in the brain. This means we can then understand the underlying cause better and build better interventions to get around them. But, I stress, there are no quick and easy answers and solutions. That being said, conscious, persistent effort will get you a long way.

We have to learn to recognise, and work with or around:

  1. Instincts
    1. Instincts: our natural inbuilt biased decision making this includes in-group / out-group thinking but also simple moral coding (good behaviour vs. bad behaviour) that are “hard-wired”.
    1. Associations: these are learnt biases and are often cultural but are also very personal
  2. Emotions: emotions can cloud rational thinking but also cause their own sets of biases, this is partly dependent on personality. Emotions also are responsible for wiring associations.
  3. Cognitive traps: the ways we think things through rationally or not and how we frame things influence how we fall into, or not, certain biases.
  4. Personality: personality has a strong influence on susceptibility to bias but particularly on being able to think out of bias. Personality can predict who is most susceptible to what types of biases.

So, what are the answers to battling bias and unconscious bias? Obviously, this is hard to answer with such a deeply embedded, multi-layered, complex phenomena as bias, but I can say that you should:

  • Take it seriously
  • Commit to making a difference
  • Approach systemic issues (e.g. anonymised, standardised resumes make a massive difference in who gets invited to an interview)
  • Take a multi-pronged and long-term approach
  • Speak the same metaphorical language (unified terminology and understanding of this)
  • Try to avoid quick hits

In short, we shouldn’t use the term, as some have, of “debiasing the brain”, that’s just not possible. But we can make massive inroads by taking a multi-pronged approach, taking it seriously, and focusing on key systemic issues.

If you want to learn more about the brain and bias and how this is wired, we are launching a short but comprehensive fully online course (with instructor support) on Monday 27th July 2020. This is not a quick hit that we have advised against but a solid review of what bias and the brain is and some key areas for you to focus on if you want to make an impact. You can register your interest here and receive discounted pricing.

If you want to do a bias blindspot assessment you can visit this page – this reports on key personality traits that influence susceptibility to bias, gives estimations of how susceptible you are to bias, and also how strong your bias blindspot is. To encourage awareness, and do our bit, we are offering this free of charge until 1st of August.

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