What is Unconscious Bias?

The word “bias” comes from the French “biais” meaning to slant, or to be oblique, and in the English Oxford Dictionary “bias” is described as being:

  • A preference or inclination – particularly one that inhibits impartial judgement
  • An unfair act or policy springing from prejudice.

In today’s modern world the majority of people like to think that they are unbiased. Feelings of bias carry with them an unsavoury connotation, being linked with things like anti-Semitism, colour prejudice, and anti gay and anti lesbian feelings in social terms. Here in the UK especially, we like to think of ourselves as being open, fair minded, and supporters of the principles of free speech. But of course being biased does not only relate to social matters; it relates to anything and everything that our thought processes consider.

The Nature of Unconscious Bias

The truth of the matter is that feelings of bias in certain circumstances are in fact very healthy. They are part of the natural decision-making process that is often referred to as “fight or flee”, and no one would suggest that this sort of bias is anything other than correct, and indeed wholesome. But it’s precisely because it is part of the natural “fight or flee” decision process, that similar feelings of bias are present in most of our decision-making, even if we’re not aware of them. It’s this unconscious bias that we need to examine, and indeed to overcome, in order to reach a fair and impartial judgement

Biasness against the Unknown

Human beings are very much, creatures of habit. We tend to trust what we know – what we are familiar with. When anything new comes along, it is often greeted with suspicion, even though we may well suspect that it is beneficial. It’s the fear of the unknown coming into being, and this is one of the fears that we need to conquer.

The Arrival of the World Wide Web and eLearning

Not many people would argue against the fact that the arrival of the web into the public domain was a good thing. It’s given us access to so much information in the comfort of our own homes at the mere click of a mouse. It also brought with it a new way of doing things; not just finding information, and carrying out research, but sharing knowledge with others, and transacting business online, selling products and services. In addition it heralded a new way of learning – eLearning, or electronic (online) learning.

e-Learning has Many Advantages

The problem with eLearning for many people is that firstly it’s new, and secondly it flies in the face of conventional learning. The conventional way of learning is by going and sitting in a classroom, and being taught or lectured by the teacher/lecturer who is physically present. So the prime reaction to remote or on premise e-Learning is that unconscious biasness creeps straight in, and many will simply act on that and write it off as being something they are not in favour of. But the reality is that e-Learning has many advantages that conventional learning does not have. For example:

  • Students can learn at their own pace.
  • Lessons can be replayed as many times as necessary
  • Lessons can be fitted in to a busy working/social life
  • The problem of geographic location is negated
  • Travel costs are eliminated

Taking the First Step

The tendency with unconscious bias is for it to prevent people from “drilling down” below the surface. Any proposal gets dismissed without proper evaluation. This clearly means that the person considering the proposal, (be it for e-Learning or using cloud technology), cannot make an impartial, well informed decision. Their decision making process will be flawed, and this needs to be dealt with. The first step in dealing with it is to recognise the presence of unconscious bias. By doing so, it then becomes a conscious bias and is something you can set about addressing.

To help you with this recognition process you can take an online test called “Project Implicit”. It’s something that Harvard University in the USA developed.

Changing the Bias

Having recognised that you do have an unconscious (now conscious) bias you wish to address, the next step in the process is to appreciate that you can change it. One way of doing this is to start off with a clean slate.

Most of the biases that we accumulate in our lives are based on past experience. Our brains have a way of measuring and comparing the impact of anything we do, or experience, or talk about, and it is this that creates our preferences and what can sometimes be described as our “gut feel”. In order to wipe the slate clean we must abandon and ignore our preconceived notions.

The Mechanics of the Change

In mechanical terms you can draw a vertical line down the middle of a sheet of paper and write the disadvantages on one side of the line, and the advantages on the other. Not only is ignoring your preconceived notions a pre-requisite here, but you must also research and use all information available to you. If you do this openly and honestly, you will have a clear demarcation as to the pros and cons of your consideration. Although slightly long-winded, it is an effective way of dealing with what has become a conscious bias, and making a totally bias free decision.

A Cautionary Word

You need to be cautious when you are doing your research. Wherever possible, you should carry it out on your own, and the Internet is a great source of information. It is of course tempting to talk to others, but in doing so, you must first realise that they themselves will have their own particular biases, and under no circumstances should you take these on board. Why should you swap your own bias for someone else’s? Using your own free found information is the only sure-fire way of collecting accurate, untainted, data that you can then use to form your own unbiased opinion.

Unconscious bias and the enterprise

As far as our discussion on e-Learning goes, and the unconscious bias that some people associate with it, when you go through the mechanical process we’ve outlined above, the hammer clearly comes down on the side of the advantages.

You’ve heard of Equality & Diversity training of course and unconscious bias is a big part of this. It’s about teaching your staff how to deal with diversity and why they may have an existing bias that isn’t necessarily their fault. By introducing the concept of unconscious bias, you’re implementing training in a positive, rather than negative manner.

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