How do you react when you meet people? Do you make presumptions? Draw conclusions? Judge? Is your reaction affected by peoples age, skin colour, ethnicity, height, gender, the way they dress, etc?

The answer is YES! Very much so. In fact research now shows that our reactions and therefore our behaviours and decisions are affected by our bias and much of this in unconscious. Unconscious bias refers to a bias that we are unaware of, which happens outside of our control. It happens automatically and is triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences (ECU: 2013 Unconscious bias in higher education)

We also have conscious bias: the types of people, nationalities, genders that we have a preference for and are drawn towards. When things are conscious we can attend to them but when they are not it means they can impact us and our relationships in negative ways. We may avoid people, discriminate, treat people differently, make bad decisions and potentially cause harm to ourselves and others.The more we can be aware that we all have unconscious bias and the more we can bring it into our consciousness, the better for all.

There has been lots of research that illustrates this concept. For example, a study of science faculty applications (Yale University, Moss-Racusin et al, 2012) sent out identical applications apart from the names being gender specific. Even though the information was exactly the same (apart from the name) the assessors consistently judged the one with male names on to be better qualified, more likely to be offered the position, would be given a higher starting salary and were more likely to be invested in long term. This was consistent whether or not the assessor was male or female themselves. Other studies, such as The Sentencing Project 2013, show that African-Americans are much more likely to be sentenced than whites, and that the sentences are generally longer. Although the figures are lower, this is also true in the UK.

Generally we have a preference for people who we see as belonging to our core group, whatever that may be. We gravitate towards what we see as same-ness and identify with, and away from people who we see as different from us. This, of course, has all sorts of implications in terms of prejudice and therefore discrimination. We have laws and policies that demand that we must not discriminate and of course it’s important that we do our best not to. However I believe this can invite a level of shame and we then shut down on exploring our own process and its effect on ourselves and others.

Your biases are affected by your past, the culture you grew up in, the messages you received or perceived when growing up, and the culture in which you now live. They are also affected by stereotypes and how much we potentially feed those views via the media, literature or seeing things from our own frame of reference.

We all have unconscious bias and it does affect our behaviour and decisions in the world. If we remain open and curious we can explore our unconscious process and bring it into our conscious awareness. Only with awareness can we take these biases into account so that they affect our behaviour and decisions as little as possible.

If you would like to know more about this concept or others, we run a range of workshops for personal and professional development at The Link Centre

Leilani Mitchell Dip. Couns. CTA (P) UKCP Reg. Psychotherapist, TSTA (P) is an internationally qualified trainer, supervisor and Psychotherapist. She is Director of The Link Centre, a training centre based in Newick, Sussex that offers courses in personal and professional development as well as longer term courses in Counselling and Psychotherapy. Leilani’s passion is to facilitate people’s self-awareness to enhance their quality of life.