Unconscious Bias: The Silent Hijacker

A teaser
A father and son were involved in a car accident in which the father was killed and the son seriously injured. The father was pronounced dead at the scene of the accident and his body taken to the local morgue. The son was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital and immediately wheeled into an emergency room. A surgeon was called. Upon arrival, and seeing the patient, the attending surgeon exclaimed, "Oh my God, it’s my son!".
The question of course is, who is the surgeon?
40% of the population fail to resolve the fact that the surgeon is the boy’s mother. Why? The reason is simple: when they picture the surgeon they automatically picture a man. The simple explanation, based on a perception people are not even conscious of, is just the surface of a complex labyrinth of underground biases (in this case gender bias) that go along with the meal ticket of the human condition. Yes indeed, we all have them.

Conscious or Unconscious?
The formation of a government here may have been both tedious and interminable but at least it was fought out on the battleground of political biases that were spoken, manifest and out there (even if it did include water charges and turf-cutting!). The truth is that many of our daily disputes, decisions and judgements – those that are shaping our future - are based on biases we carry that we are wholly unaware of. Unconscious biases are a fact of life and countless studies since the 1980s confirm that people harbour unconscious bias even when they explicitly believe that prejudice and discrimination are wrong. 

Research has unearthed as many as 150 types of unconscious prejudice which makes the task of tackling them all the more daunting. However, make no mistake, unconscious bias is a powerful force in business as it silently influences strategy, hiring, promotion, work allocation, performance reviews and organisation culture. Those biases can occur around gender, age, skin colour, height, weight, education, accent, marital or parental status and these represent just some of the more obvious ones. Digging deeper you discover that if you can name it there’s probably an unconscious bias around it.

When world-famous violinist Joshua Bell posed as a busker at L’Enfant Plaza in Washington during rush-hour he managed to collect $32.19 in a solo performance that lasted 43 minutes and was heard by over 1000 people. Yet just three days previously he had sold out Boston’s Symphony Hall at over $100 a ticket. Is this a commentary on our unconscious bias towards street musicians or did people simply not like the music? Either way, how many talented people have been rejected by organisations owing to the unconscious prejudices of the interviewers?

Bizarre impacts                                                                                                        The business impact of unconscious bias reveals itself in some bizarre statistics including the fact that 58% of Fortune 500 company CEOs are verging on six feet tall. This compares to a figure of 14.5% for the male population as a whole. So when it comes to positions of power, size - it would appear - does matter. A study by Queensland University, for example, found that blond women’s salaries were 7 percent higher than women who were brunettes or redheads. The National Bureau of Economic Research found that for every 1 percent increase in a woman’s body mass, there was a 0.6 percent decrease in family income. A Duke University study found that "mature faced" people had a career advantage over "baby-faced" people. 

Some of the more common biases that affect decisions in the workplace include:

1. Affinity Bias                                                                                                    Warming to people who are just like us. "She detoxes: she must be alright".

2. Halo Effect 
Tendency to think everything about that person is good simply because we like them. "My Johnny would never do that!".

3. Perception Bias                                                                                                     The tendency to form stereotypes and assumptions about certain groups that make it impossible to make an objective judgement about members of those groups. The juror in 12 Angry Men who says to his fellow jurors of the boy accused "I’ve lived amongst them all my life. You know what they’re like".

4. Confirmation Bias
We seek information that confirms existing beliefs or assumptions. A recent columnist I read admitted "I like facts. Facts are like plasticine  - you can bend them into any shape you wish". Malcom Gladwell’s Blink declares that we make 11 judgements in the first 7 seconds of meeting and then proceed by subconsciously gathering data to back-up those judgements.

5. Group Think
We try too hard to fit in to a particular group by following others or holding back on conflicting thoughts and opinions.


Companies are onto it
Globally organisations are slowly awakening to the impact of this silent hijacker and according to the Wall St Journal 20% of US companies (including Google, BAE, Roche Diagnostics) now provide unconscious bias training to staff. This is predicted to grow to 50% in the next 5 years. Not surprisingly for something unconscious, the first common step in all company initiatives is the creation of the awareness that unconscious bias actually exists, and to be able to label it.

So, for extra homework, once you have managed to get the unconscious bias awareness and labelling going in your workplace, why not start to examine it in your parenting and in your significant personal relationships? Socrates, had he known, might have prescribed this as a starting point to "Know Thyself". 
But perhaps Mark Twain knew most about unconscious bias when he said "It ain’t what we don’t know gets us into trouble; it’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so". Even if he didn’t have the label.