Here’s How Unconscious Bias Affects Your Brain (And Hiring)

With each new report on American workplace culture, the reality of unconscious bias and the damage it does in the workplace gets harder to deny. Recent–and well circulated–reports out of various organizations have been rife with examples of this toxic phenomenon, and while it’s good to decry these at a high level, it’s just as important to understand where these biases come from and how they manifest in the modern workplace.

While off-color comments and attitudes are a huge part of the problem, the real damage is done when what’s behind remarks like these also underlies recruitment efforts and sets the tone for workplace culture. And while we all imagine ourselves fair and thoughtful people, the very nature of unconscious bias means we aren’t aware of the unjust shortcuts our brains take.

What Exactly is Unconscious Bias?

Biases are “mental shortcuts based on social norms and stereotypes” and can be based on everything from characteristics you might expect (skin color, gender, age, height, parental status) to some you might not (introversion versus extroversion, disability status, foreign accents, where someone went to college). “If you can name it,” notes a white paper from UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, “there is probably an unconscious bias for it.”

image for unconscious bias

Daniel Kahneman explains what happens when your unconscious bias affects your decision making in his 2011 bestseller, Thinking Fast and Slow. He points to two systems operating in our brains.

System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. Examples of this include detecting if one object is more distant than another, hostility in someone’s voice, answering 2 + 2 = ?, or reading words on large billboards.

System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration. Like, say, making hiring decisions.

However, while we’re paying attention to System 2, it’s System 1 that is, at lightning speed and under the radar, “effortlessly originating impressions and feelings that are the main sources of the explicit beliefs and deliberate choices of System 2.” In other words, when we look at “2 + 2” for example, we cannot stop ourselves from thinking “4”—it’s involuntary.

Clearly, we aren’t born believing women are less competent than men, black folks are less competent than white folks, or Southern accents indicate a lack of intelligence or sophistication. Often our unconscious biases are things we may not even believe at all, at least not consciously.

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