The Cost of Unconscious Bias

I am biased.

I make decisions about people based on who they know, what they do, what they look like and how successful I think they are. My biases around these topics are so strong they can unconsciously overwhelm any opposing data the critical thinking portion of my brain collects. The reptilian portion of my brain triggers actions in me before I am aware of what I have done. The end result can be poor, sometimes costly, decisions.

The ironic part of all of this is that, if you asked me, I would have told you I’m very self-aware.

I have learned I would have been wrong.

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Through several months of research, reading every article I could get my hands on around women in the workforce, diversity and inclusion initiatives, unconscious bias, mindfulness and self-awareness, I have found these ideas to hold true:

  1. We all have our own truth. We all have our own perspective. It is very important that we remember that in every situation, we are looking through our own personal lens and that lens is not the same lens through which the people around us are looking.
  2. When we make decisions fast or in a stressful situation, it is likely that we are using our reptilian brain. These brains have no capacity to think critically but operate solely based on past experiences and beliefs that we hold unconsciously. Although in times of crisis these brains can save us and keep us safe, in times of normal everyday life, the decisions we make using these brains are often the decisions that cost us or others the most.
  3. Making wise sustainable decisions takes patience, forgiveness, dedication and an open mind to consider different perspectives on the same issue. It requires diverse thought.
  4. Assuming that those that seem like us, think likes us, can be just as dangerous to our decision making ability as assuming that those that are different than us, have nothing to offer us.
  5. Lastly and most importantly, authentically connecting with someone, despite differences, is the best way to truly understand someone.

“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

I am lucky. I have a diverse group of people that I call family. My children have gay uncles, they have a French pseudo sister and a 1/2 Indian and 1/2 German pseudo brother. My best friend is Vietnamese and I play a sport with people that come from all over the world. It’s been wonderful and informative engaging with all of them about what it is/was like to be a part of a minority.

Also one of the incredible side effects of doing this research has been the amazing conversations I’m having with friends that I have known for many, many years. I’m becoming aware of experiences that I never knew they had – moving experiences that shaped who they are and yet never would have come up in our normal conversations. We were just friends. Why would we talk about the challenge of being a minority when they had adapted themselves so well to our culture that I never even saw them as being different? I assumed they were just like me.

I wasn’t being inclusive by making this assumption. By thinking they were just like me, I had actually been excluding core parts of who they are.

Everywhere I look there is another article coming at me through email or print about diversity and how where we work appears to be more inclusive. Thankfully, regardless of the source (and there are many!), they all seem to be saying the same core things about creating a more inclusive environment:

  1. We are never going to change our culture to be more inclusive of others unless we are able to look closely at ourselves and examine the biases that we carry and how those biases affect the decisions and actions that we make every day. Change needs to start within us first.
  2. Focusing on diversity numbers and becoming aware of our biases, isn’t enough. It is only the first step. We need to act to counter the effect of those biases by questioning our first instincts, being aware of our biases, actively seeking to get to know those that are different than us, and working to make the unfamiliar familiar. (Blind Spot – Banaji and Greenwald)
  3. We can re-shape our biases by seeking counter-stereotypes and embracing and connecting with those that are different from us. We need to learn to control our gut reactions to traits, whether similar or different, and seek to find authentic connections despite our biases.

“In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

In her Ted Talk, Verna Myers points out one last, very important step. She talks of the need for all of us to speak out against biases that perpetuate stereotypes. Remaining neutral or conflict avoidant implies that the biases are OK and ensures that they will continue to be passed on from generation to generation.

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

My awareness of the unconscious reasons behind the decisions I make is still more of an after-thought, but at least I’m thinking about it. Maybe next time I won’t rush to trust someone just because we have common Linkedin connections. Maybe next time I will consider talking to the people that are different from me, because their different perspective might shed light on a situation. Maybe next time, things will be different. Maybe.

In the meanwhile, I’ll keep reading, I’ll keep talking, I’ll keep reflecting, I’ll keep questioning and I’ll keep embracing different experiences and different people when the opportunity presents itself. I’ll keep trying to be self-aware, and maybe I’ll change a few of my biases, or at least see them before they lead me to a poor decision.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.