‘Unconscious bias’ is a common buzz word in modern pop-psychology, but what is it exactly? Why does it matter? And how can we mitigate for its effect on everyday decision-making?
Scientifically speaking, cognitive biases are systematic errors in decision-making, resulting from the mental shortcuts created by our brains to allow for more efficient processing of information. Most often, these shortcuts prove useful in making quick and simple decisions of low risk. But when a decision is more complex and an answer less accessible, the brain may choose to address an easier, related question – the answer which comes to mind readily. This is where the credibility of intuition comes into question and the seeds of unknowing prejudice begin to take root.
But do not fear, being biased doesn’t make you a bad person! Heuristics stem from a lifetime’s worth of environmental occurrences, used by the brain to compose an intricate model of the ‘norms’ within an individual’s life. With this in mind, it is clear that biases do not necessarily reflect a person’s beliefs, but instead the net effect of events and encounters upon their unconscious map of normality. One way to raise your awareness of your biases and see them in action is to note situations in which you are surprised by something; perhaps a slow driver turns out to be a young man rather than the older lady you were expecting, or your nurse male rather than female.
Combatting unconscious bias
Wouldn’t it be nice if simply knowing about this quirk of mental processing enabled us to consciously combat it? Sadly, this does not seem to be the case. Evidence indicates that altering our inner decision pathways is a lengthy and almost impossible task. A level of awareness of one’s own cognitive biases isn’t unhelpful, but alone is insufficient for instigating behavioural change. So what can we do to help ourselves?
Research suggests that it is perhaps wiser to focus on broader systemic interventions which work to limit the brain’s access to the kind of information that may lead to bias in the first place. A classic example of this is the introduction of blind orchestra auditions, which can account for 25–46% of the increase in female orchestra members since 1970 and has since been replicated more widely in recruitment in the form of blind CVs.
Essentially, we must seek to understand and clearly define the kinds of systematic errors that are routinely causing issues and diagnose their underlying causes. From here, it is possible to redesign the context in which choices are being made to reduce the negative impact of bias. Thinking in terms of this ‘choice architecture’, we can encourage positive decision-making practices and harness the best of human thinking. Interventions can be as simple as varying the order of option presentation, changing the wording used to describe alternatives, or employing a different selection process. All aim to tip the scales in favour of a more effective processing pathway, either mobilising the more conscious route of decision-making (system 2 thinking) or allowing the brain to automatically bypass both systems entirely.
What is most vital to take from the academic literature on bias, as well as our personal experiences with it, is the need to approach the subject with humility. As human beings existing in a social world, we inherently lack objectivity in our decision-making. This is acceptable, providing we have the awareness and ability to adjust for it where necessary.
Megan Hall is a Junior Consultant at Impact UK.
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 Goldin, C., & Rouse, C. 2000. Orchestrating impartiality: The impact of “blind" auditions on female musicians. American Economic Review, 90(4), pp. 715-741.
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