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How what we don't know may actually be hurting us (and our workplace): Unconscious Bias Uncovere

Leading neuroscientists (Thomas Dee of Stanford University and Seth Gershenson from American University) discovered something pretty remarkable while working with Google on a project about human information processing recently... What they found was that at any point in time, our brain is processing around 11 million bits of information... Crazy huh? But that's not the most interesting! Their research went on to suggest that our brains are only in fact capable of processing around 40 bits of information at any given time. Wait... what? Let's do the math. Essentially for most of the time, we are 99.999996% unconscious of not only what is going on around us, but also what is going on within us... To add to the mix, our brains are in a constant state of filtering and sorting information, encoding data about people and situations non-stop. But before we get into the details of unconscious bias think about the following situations and see just how much you can relate to them....

  • You felt a little more nervous flying when you saw your pilot was a female

  • You assumed the applicant was a dude, because he use to work at Google

  • You tried finding the year of graduation on a LinkedIn profile to figure out someone's age, because age changes everything

  • You discredited the knock-out blonde at the tech meet up, because you didn't think she could actually code

  • You refused to sign off a product development because it didn't fit right with your way of doing things

  • You stopped reading that CV because their name sounded too different to your own ethnicity

Well, firstly, I know you won't admit to any of these, even if you have done it. But, these are all perfect examples of what psychologists refer to "unconscious bias," also known as "implicit bias." In a nut shell, unconscious bias is the result the automated, mental short cuts we as humans create to process information and make decisions quickly. We create "schemas and social stereo types about people or settings to process information faster." Faster? Short cuts? Great! Right? Well it was great... 1.8 million years ago... on the plains of Africa, when we had to basically decide in seconds whether the long black shiny thing in front of us was a stick... or a deadly snake that could kill us in a matter of minutes. Today however, we don't come across these situations often, despite there being a lot of metaphorical snakes in the business world, there aren't many hiding behind the water cooler (phew).

However, our brain didn't quite get the memo, and now, if something doesn't fit within our mental schema of what we expect, our innate ability to construct biases can get... well, problematic. In fact, brain imaging scans have even demonstrated that when people are shown images of faces that differ from their own ethnicity, the area in the brain (within the amygdala) responsible for alerting one of danger is (irrationally) activated. WTF?! So no matter how much you may try to deny it, we are all subject to the effects of unconscious bias largely due to the sheer speed and automated nature of our brain's reactions.. shit.

In our defence however... the brain is highly malleable, it can be sculpted to "undo" some of the hard wiring in a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity. So let's take a deeper look into some of these biases. After all, as leaders it is crucial that we create awareness in the work place and we understand what truly drives these biases. Research suggests that there are around 150 different biases that occur commonly with the work place. Don't stress, life is short, I am not going to painstakingly analyse each one - rather let's take a look at the top 6 (I like even numbers) and understand what we can do about them.

1. Perception Bias

This bias includes the tendency to "categorise" people based on certain characteristics, for example assuming that a slim person must do a lot of sport, or a mother is going to be less committed to work or a Asian person is good at math. This bias can be very problematic for many reasons, in particular because it can lead to very skewed version of the truth. In the workplace, the perception bias is extremely problematic when hiring, so next time you find your self putting in place mental categories, stop and force yourself to dig deeper, go beyond your own expectations and try new things.

2. Halo Effect

Coined by psychologist Edward Thorndike, the halo effect is a cognitive bias whereby we assume that because people are good at doing one thing, the will be equally as good in doing another (or the opposite, if they are bad at one thing, they will be equally as bad at another). The concept also illustrates that people are in fact highly influenced by first impressions. If we see a person first in a good light, it is difficult subsequently to darken that light and they can even change the perception of the things they interactive with - hence the term. In the work place it means that as leaders we can't focus just on first impressions - be it good or bad. Understand that the halo effect is ticking away in your brain, potentially blocking you from seeing the reality of a situation. Is Nespresso amazing because it's the best coffee in the world? Or is it because George Clooney has given it an incredible reputation? In the work place, judge each entity in it's own right and try not to let them be influenced by unrelated factors. Are you more likely to agree with a product improvement because you like the developer building it? Or that product feature is actually going to drive value?

3. Affinity Bias

Affinity bias is basically the idea that we are more likely to like people because they are similar to us. Think back to your high school group of friends, or maybe even who you hang out with at work? Are you all around the same age, same gender or maybe same family structure? Chances are, you are more likely to prefer the people you are most alike to. But why is this a crap idea? Well... If the affinity bias occurs too much when building your team for example, you are going to end up with one very generic and similar team - this is definitely not the best idea!

4. Beauty Bias

So the title probably gives it away. But if you didn't get it, the idea behind this bias is that more attractive people are judged differently to less attractive people. But before you go thinking that it's only the babes that will land the jobs, think again. In a study conducted by Ken Podratz, of Rice University, it was found that while average-looking and attractive men were picked more often for jobs such as switchboard operator or tow-truck driver, beautiful women lost these same positions to less attractive females! What was found was that for "male oriented jobs" both men and women opted to place "less attractive women." This can definitely explain a lot of not only tow truck drivers, but also positions in tech, such as developers! So maybe start conducting first interviews via skype without a video? Maybe focus on researching who a person is based on merit, rather than looks.

5. Status Bias

This bias emerges when we notice ourselves treating people differently as a direct result of how significant or influential we perceive them to be. We tend to favour people who appear to possess a higher status, even if that is not actually the case. This can often lead to us giving more credit to someone based on a perceived value, and potentially less credit to those who are actually more capable. In my own experience, I have been pretty lucky to meet some incredible people from all around the world, including the CEO of Microsoft! What has consistently worked for me is when you just treat people at a human level, regardless of how they rank.

6. Confirmation Bias

This occurs when we as humans constantly looks for ways to "back up" our biases. For example, if we see a person who is overweight, we assume he is lazy and we actively look for instances when they are underperforming or being less productive than others. This bias involves seeking to find "evidence" of our believed biases, even if the evidence on the contrary is more compelling. See this bias as a type of tunnel vision, blocking contrary evidence to what we believe.

I want to finish this blog with a video - chances are, you may have seen it before. Now it's not actually 100% to do with unconscious bias, the experiment was actually first constructed to illustrate the notion of "selective attention" but I think the concept is also connected to unconscious bias... So I challenge you to watch this video, and count how many passes the people in white t-shirts make...

So what's your answer?

Oh... by the way, did you notice the guy in the gorilla suit? If you did, I bet you are familiar with this experiment? If you you didn't see you, scroll back to 0.26 seconds. Basically, what this video illustrates is that we are often not conscious to events that we don't expect to see. This is quite an important message for us as leaders - let's start acknowledging that we aren't always conscious of things that we maybe should be. Let's start acknowledging the fact that we are hard-wired to stereo type. Let's understand that looks or status actually do influence us. Above all, let's stop the denial and start working hard to "undo" these biases so that we can build, stronger, more successful and more diverse companies.



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