Is Your Unconscious Bias Holding You Back? If so, what can be done about it?

“The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.” Henri Bergson

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Everyone likes to think of themselves as objective – someone that always has a fair and unbiased opinion of a situation.  We will always consider all of the available facts and will draw our conclusion in a fair and reasonable way.  This could not result in a biased view, could it?

Unfortunately, our brains are designed in such a way that makes it almost impossible for us not to be biased. Science tells us that we encounter approximately 11 billion bits of data every second, however our conscious mind can only process 50 – 200 bits.  Even allowing for errors in calculations, that is a vast difference. What therefore happens to the other 10.998 billion bits of data? The human brain has a very sophisticated process of selective filtering, information that is not deemed to be relevant will be filtered out before we become consciously aware of it.  

There are many forms of unconscious bias – confirmation bias being one of the more commonConfirmation bias is where we have an opinion about a situation, either consciously or subconsciously, we then actively search for evidence which backs up that opinion and we filter out information that contradicts it. 

Try this experiment with a friend.  Without telling them what you are doing, get them to review the room that you are both in, ask them to focus on everything in the room that is red, ask them to memorise, in as much detail as they can, everything that is red in the room.  Then get them to close their eyes and describe for you, in detail, everything in the room that is green.  They will struggle.  Unless it is a room that they are already familiar with and therefore know from memory what is in it, or if they are already aware of this experiment, it is unlikely that they will be able to describe very much green at all – even if there is more green in the room than red.  Not only that, it is very likely that while they were looking for red, they counted things that were almost red but not actually red – dark pink or burgundy for example.   (This experiment will work with any two colours so if there’s no red or green in the room then choose different colours)

This is confirmation bias in action – we are seeing what we are looking for rather than everything that is actually there, we are also slightly changing what we are seeing, in order to match what we are looking for i.e. not quite red is counted as red.

This example demonstrates this type of bias in a very conscious way, we’re actively and consciously looking for red, so we see red.  It demonstrates however how we filter out information that does not match what we are looking for – to the point of not seeing something when it is right in front of us – most of the green is not seen.

Unconscious bias works in exactly the same way, however we are not aware that we are actively looking for something, we are simply going about our day assuming that we are seeing everything that we need to see.

Imagine what you would filter out if you had a subconscious belief that you were not good enough to perform at something? Imagine what your mind would choose to show you and what it would filter out.  Would you see every time that people around you were subtly showing their approval of what you were doing, or would you see the times when people around you were subtly showing their disapproval of what you were doing?  You will always encounter people that show subtle signs of either approval or disapproval no matter what you are doing or how good you are at doing it.  When your unconscious bias however is actively looking for evidence to support your belief that you cannot do something, you will only see the disapproving behaviour. You may also count completely neutral behaviour as disapproving in order to further support your belief.

This then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  We believe that we cannot do something, we then unconsciously seek out evidence to support that belief, further strengthening the belief.

The result can be that we put off, or completely stop doing, the task altogether.  We may start to become slightly anxious if anyone ever asks us to perform this task going forward.  We may start to feel negatively towards our boss if she/he is continually asking us to perform this task.  We may even avoid putting ourselves forward for promotions or other jobs that include this task – the list is endless as to how a negative belief, seemingly backed up by evidence, can affect us.

As you can see our unconscious bias can be quite damaging if negative beliefs are driving its search engine. We are often told that we can believe what we see, “I’ll believe it when I see it” being a common phrase, but remember that we are always seeing a filtered version of the available information.  10,998 billion bits of data is a lot to be filtered out, there could be information in there that supports a completely different view altogether.

So what can we do?

Remember, no matter what you believe the information is telling you, you need to question it and then question it again. If you are aware that you have a tendency to see a particular topic with a negative slant, tell your mind to actively look for more positive information. If you have just noticed information that seems to show you that you cannot do something, tell your mind to immediately find 3 bits of information that shows you that you can do it, your brain will immediately jump into action and will start searching for that information.  “Seek, and ye shall find” Whatever you are looking for you will find, if you look for more positive information – information that shows you that you can do anything that you put your mind to – you will start to feel very differently, and tasks that previously seemed difficult, you will start to do with ease.

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