Our brains are complex and amazing — they allow us to do everything from taking a breath to solving an equation. When Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am,” he was affirming the primacy of the brain in creating and shaping the human experience.
But as our brains have evolved, we’ve realized that “the human experience” is neither static nor consistent. While we can use our thoughts and actions to change our world, how that world is experienced often changes across identities. To address this, activists, thinkers, and researchers have been striving to ensure equitable experiences for all people, and in the past couple decades, they’ve begun to focus on the role unconscious biases play in shaping the world we live in.”
On the recent NextGen online training, “Unconscious Bias in the Workplace,” Ty Smith, Senior Consultant to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, shared his expertise on what unconscious biases look like, how they’re formed and how they can be addressed.
From the moment we enter the world, our brains are looking for ways to process and understand it. Many of the assumptions and beliefs that we form early in our lives will remain with us, and this is where unconscious biases can begin to take hold. But before we can combat the potential prejudices that arise from our beliefs, we must understand how these subconscious beliefs and heuristics are formed.
As Smith noted, while the brain is capable of taking in 11 million pieces of information per second, it can only process 40 at a conscious level. The rest are left to the subconscious, where they meet with the base-level assumptions that our minds rely on to interpret the world around us.
As Smith described it, our brains create myths about the world, which we then use to deal with the people and situations that we encounter. This involves what he termed “small ‘d’” discrimination — discrimination in the sense of sorting and categorizing the information that our brains are taking in. This sort of unconscious bias is not inherently good or bad — it is simply the way our minds, at lightning speed, process the world around us.
But most of the time, when we hear about unconscious bias, it is the negative kind — the kind that causes us to make faulty and harmful assumptions about people or social situations. So how does this kind of negative thinking occur?
Smith said, “When information is categorized automatically, it’s not available for introspection.” When we cannot examine the subconscious beliefs that were used to assess the information, we cannot tell when our reactions or utilization of that information may be based on assumptions that are inaccurate or harmful.
At this subconscious level, we also may be more likely to engage in what Smith termed “black-and-white thinking.” This is what he described as failing to bring together positive and negative aspects and thinking in the extreme — all bad or all good. This leads easily to prejudiced thinking, as we apply one assumption we have about, say, a category of people to every individual in that category.
Imagine, for example, that one of the myths you have developed is that the appropriate candidates for C-suite positions are tall white men. You would not be alone, unfortunately, but you would also be wrong. Dealing with a hiring process and job candidates using this myth would not only be detrimental to your company, but it would also do quantifiable harm to applicants who you reject when they do not fit your subconscious criteria.
When our unconscious biases become harmful in this way, to ourselves and those around us, how can we address them? Smith offered helpful advice for those looking to counter unconscious bias both within themselves and which they may perceive from others in the workplace.
To address biases that you perceive in yourself, introspection can be a powerful tool for unpacking the scripts that you use to navigate the world. As Smith said, it’s important to “look at yourself before you look at someone else.” By understanding the construct that you’ve built to analyze and interact with the world, you can begin to see where its flaws and inaccuracies lie.
Smith suggested starting with a simple question like “When you walk into a room, who do you talk to first?” It’s easy to extrapolate from there, and interrogate your subconscious beliefs with further questions: What’s your social script? What behaviors and actions do you default to in a social setting? What kind of people do you defer to, and who do you feel superior to? Only by asking yourself tough questions can you begin the process of unlearning your biases.
If you are on the receiving end of unconscious bias, Smith said, one important response may be the act of “introjection.” This is when you push back against labels that have been placed on you by telling yourself “I am not that; that is a bias being pushed on me by someone with faulty thinking.”
If you witness biased behavior, you may also feel compelled to push back against it. In the words of Smith, “accountability is a courageous act,” and it lets you disrupt the faulty thinking that leads to unconscious bias. By showing another person their own detrimental beliefs or thought patterns, you encourage them to sit with them and reflect on how they might be changed for the better.
Unconscious bias may seem like an untamable, inaccessible beast, but the reality is that we all have the tools that we need to confront it. It is simply a matter of choosing to do the hard and often uncomfortable work of that confrontation. But as Smith said, “the most loving thing you can do is be present with another person. Be grounded in another person’s experience.” That is a good place to start, and it will lead to a wealth of self-discovery for both of you.