First impressions are all in the mind – Unconscious Bias

“It’s not at all hard to understand a person; it’s only hard to listen without bias.”  ― Criss Jami, Killosophy

As part of a company wide program on corporate social responsibility, one of the major focuses is to recognise and try to manage the fact that we tend to make snap judgements of people and situations, what is known as Unconscious Bias, a phrase I had not heard of. This sparked me to want to find out more.

I recall reading in a book a long time ago about our ability as humans to make snap judgements of one another and that these “first impressions” tended to stick. The book also referenced a study carried out in the USA where students were shown silent 10 second video clips of lecturers teaching. The students were asked to score the lecturers purely on the video clip. Then the students actually attended classes run by the lecturers and afterwards, they were asked to rerate them. The results were correlated  and the result was that the scores matched, hence the idea that first impressions stick. [I include at the end of this blog post, a link to an article on this].

My question though is this: We believe that we are making snap judgements based on “facts” or impressions of people, but what if the decisions we’re making aren’t really based on the facts? What if we’re being influenced by hidden thoughts, memories and feelings we’re not even aware of? What if our decisions are made or at least influenced by feelings buried deep within the complex networks of our brain? What if it is these, not the dispassionate facts which are really driving our decisions?

In fact our behaviour towards other people is more likely to be influenced by our instinctive feelings than by any complex thinking about the facts at hand even if we convince ourselves it is purely a rational decision. There is a growing level of evidence that points to our unconscious people biases playing a significant part in the way we engage with people and the decisions we make about them.

It would appear that our brains are hard-wired to rapidly categorise people instinctively. We use the most obvious and visible categories to do this: sex, size of person, age, physical attractiveness, skin colour, ethnicity and disability. The last two points obvious candidates for the Human Resources police to jump on. However, we use many other less visible criteria such as; accent – north, or south, London or regional, social background, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, education, and even job title or organisational department. These criteria automatically assign a whole suite of unconscious characteristics, good and bad, to anyone categorised as being from that group. They are automatic and unconscious biases over which we have little control, and they influence everyone, no matter how unbiased we think we may be.

Scientists believe that unconscious bias evolved to help us quickly and effectively recognise supportive and positive people when we meet them for the first time. Imagine groups of early hunter gathers meeting. You have to recognise those that will be open and welcoming versus those that will be aggressive and challenging. Obviously, this ability has benefits even today, hence the ability has continued to evolve. When we met people for the first time, it is in the first few seconds that we make judgements about people. Judgements that tend to stick, even after we have known and worked with them for a while. One element is we tend to place people into groups – social psychologists call this phenomenon “social categorisation‟ whereby we routinely and rapidly sort people into groups rather than think of each as unique.

People form categories with which to prejudge others and other groups of people based on their prior experiences with a group, but also from what they have seen and heard in the media, on TV, in newspapers and magazines, much of which they will absorbed unconsciously. These are reinforced on a daily basis without us knowing, or thinking consciously about it. Each person’s categories give rise to their own personal set of values and these values help inform our individual identity. Once your set of values are set, it is very unlikely that you can change these without conscious effort.

The company I work for has just started an awareness programme on Unconscious Bias and one of the examples given to demonstrate how it can work is as follows:-

Imagine the following situation:

  • You are driving to a client meeting and your car breaks down. You call for a mechanic who tows your car to the garage to get it fixed.
  • You decide to get the train instead and whilst you are on the train, there is an announcement from the train driver telling you the train is running 5 minutes late.
  • You leave the train station and hail a taxi to take you to the clients office.
  • You arrive at the client’s office and the security guard asks you to sign in at the main reception desk.
  • The receptionist provides you with a name badge.
  • You meet the senior executive and their personal assistant in the boardroom and the meeting commences.

Chances are the following people came to mind:

  1. A male mechanic
  2. A male train driver
  3. A male taxi driver
  4. A male security guard
  5. A female receptionist
  6. A male Executive and a female personal assistant

The reason we automatically associate ‘male’ and ‘mechanic’ for instance is due to the human brain’s natural tendency to associate groups of people with key job roles. Again, these unconscious associations are formed through our socialisation.

Having looked at how unconscious bias develops, let’s now look at different types of unconscious bias.

Affinity bias is the fact that we like people who are like us or similar to us in some way. It makes our conversations easier and we feel comfortable and can be more open about who we are. I try to counter this by making sure that the teams and groups I work in have as broad a range of people – skill, age, gender, culture and ethnicity – as possible.

Ambiguity bias occurs where we are faced with limited information. We will seek to fill in gaps based on our own understanding of the candidate or individual and this will be linked to whether we have affinity with them or not. In most cases if there is affinity we will be looking to fill the gaps with a favourable interpretation of the missing information and vice versa where there is no affinity. I recently had to deal with a poor performing colleague. Rather than just make my own judgement, I asked for feedback from his work colleagues, people in other departments and also the people he was delivering service to. I asked open and positive questions to gain a balanced set of feedback.

Confirmation bias leads us to seek out and weight information which confirms what we already thought and makes us negate evidence which contradicts this. We gather evidence to justify our first impression. I was asked to lead a particular project on service. Rather than jump to my own conclusions, I asked others in the organisation for their impressions, comments and feedback first. This helped to give a more balanced insight into the issues, rather than my own opinion.

Comparison bias occurs when we compare people with other people. Our tendency is to look for and exaggerate any differences in order to categorise the individual effectively. This leads us to make a more subjective assessment of a candidate. The category we have given the individual in our mind is likely to affect how we perceive and react to them. We can be more objective when we compare each individual against criteria and focus on them as an individual. I was part of a recent graduate assessment centre event. Five graduates attended and went through individual competency based interviews, individual presentations and a group exercise. For each segment, each graduate was individually assessed by a different assessor. At the end of the event, all of the mark papers were handed in and scored. This removed the comparison bias element. We were able to reach a decision on the best candidate, based on facts rather than impressions.

Research tells us that if we are mindful of our decisions we can control them better, but bias control is less effective when we are cognitively or emotionally preoccupied. E.g. when we are:

  1.    Stressed
  2.    Under time pressure or rushing
  3.    Under emotional load – angry/upset
  4.    Physically tired
  5.    Relying on our impulses and habits.
  6.    These conditions may occur in even the best and most objective processes. When we see them occurring we need to take a moment and reflect.

Being biased is part of who we are. It is natural to gravitate to people who are like us. Being aware of “our biases” won’t remove them, but might help us manage them better. I won’t go into all of the HR details of how to manage recruitment, interviews, evaluations etc. in this post. If you want to know more, please get in touch.

I leave you with the following quote:

“When I look at a person, I see a person – not a rank, not a class, not a title.”  ― Criss Jami, Killosophy


Article on the 10 second video article:


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