Unconscious Bias - Recognizing and Reducing Implicit Predjudices

As humans, we categorize people into various social groups, make judgments based on these categories, and treat them accordingly. This process usually takes place automatically and beyond our awareness and is often caused by so-called unconscious bias, an inherent cognitive bias, or distortion of perception. Unconscious bias refers to the inherent cognitive bias or distortion of perception that operates on an unconscious level, influencing our thoughts, decisions, and interactions. It significantly shapes the way we think, make choices, and interact with our colleagues.

Unconscious gender bias continues to present a significant obstacle to women's career advancement. An example of this bias is the existence of different career standards for women compared to men. The double bind gender bias is particularly noticeable in male-dominated fields. Women who exhibit stereotypically feminine behaviors in such fields are often viewed favorably. However, simultaneously, their performance is frequently undermined with comments like: “She's really nice, but she lacks the assertiveness necessary for a career in xyz.” On the other hand, when women deviate from female stereotypes and do not conform to societal expectations, they may face scrutiny with
comments such as: "Oh yes, she's very self-confident, almost a bit aggressive." Unconscious gender bias influences various aspects, including task assignments, performance appraisals, hiring processes, and promotion decisions, creating barriers to women's career progression.

Unconscious biases arise because of the efficient way our brains work. Dividing our world into pigeonholes and sorting people and experiences into them save time and cognitive resources.  Although this process is not always negative, there are situations where these mental shortcuts can lead us astray. However, we can consciously correct these biases to some extent, mainly by increasing our awareness of them. In this series, we will introduce you to some of the most significant biases:

Anchor Effect
The Anchor Effect refers to our tendency to be influenced by a reference point, i.e. an anchor. This effect occurs when we rely too much on the first piece of information we encounter. This can, for instance, be observed in salary or price negotiations, where the first offer serves as the anchor to which subsequent proposals are compared. The reference point established in this manner significantly shapes the subsequent course of events. In the context of performance appraisal interviews, the anchor effect can negatively impact female employees. When women present their self-assessment first, it often leads to a lower anchor being set, as women tend to be more modest in their self-evaluations. Consequently, this can negatively influence the manager's perception and evaluation of their performance.

Attractiveness Bias
The attractiveness bias describes the tendency to favor and positively evaluate individuals who are considered attractive. This phenomenon has also given rise to the term "lookism," which describes discrimination based on physical appearance. Numerous studies have demonstrated the existence of a halo effect associated with physical attractiveness, whereby attractive individuals are not only perceived as more responsible and honest but also as more intelligent.

Similarity Bias / Mini-Me Effect / Similar to Me
This bias describes that perceived similarity is often associated with increased favoritism. This entails that we tend to evaluate people who are like us and who share characteristics, traits, and certain interests with us more positively, as we feel a sense of comfort and familiarity around them. The similarity bias thus follows the motto "like goes with like." This bias poses challenges in hiring processes, particularly as it hinders progress toward greater diversity. If a board is largely male, which is indeed a typical phenomenon, there is a tendency to recruit more men of a similar age due to their superficial similarity. According to McKinsey's 2019 Women in the Workplace study, for every 100 men promoted to a leadership position, only 72 women have an equal opportunity for advancement. This is partly attributed to the fact that these decisions are primarily made by men.

Blind Spot Bias
The blind spot bias, also known as 'bias blindness,' occurs when we assume that we are not affected by the biases mentioned earlier and that our perception is undistorted. Like a blind spot in our vision, there is a blind spot in our ability to perceive and judge others objectively. A higher level of education does not exempt us from this bias; it merely enables us to argue more persuasively that we are (supposedly) objective. To uncover these blind spots, you can take the Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT), which helps identify implicit associations one may have, such as the associations between women and family and between men and career.
Test yourself:

Confirmation Bias
Confirmation bias refers to the tendency to seek, select, and interpret information in a way that aligns with one's preexisting attitudes and expectations. This bias impairs critical thinking processes and objective judgment. A related phenomenon is positive testing, where individuals test values and events that have already occurred or align with one's perspective and expectations while neglecting contradictory evidence. A similar bias is selective perception, where individuals only perceive certain aspects that are personally relevant or confirm their existing beliefs while disregarding others.

Fundamental Attribution Error
The fundamental attribution error is the tendency to attribute the cause of behavior primarily to the individual while underestimating the influence of the context of the situation. This bias thus describes the insufficient consideration of contextual influences in favor of dispositional explanations. This could be the case, for example, if you encounter a colleague in the hallway who only reacts brusquely to your greeting and you conclude that the colleague is unfriendly and unsympathetic, thereby underestimating the significance of the context of the situation. The colleague may have been stressed, having a bad day, or even dealing with an emergency. In a study conducted by Peturson et al. (2011), it was demonstrated that contrary to what the fundamental attribution error suggests, positive attributes in women are not attributed to dispositional factors but to external circumstances. This aligns with the finding that women are often given less credit for their performance due to stereotypical beliefs that perceive them as less competent than men.

Halo Effect
The Halo effect refers to the phenomenon where the evaluation of one prominent characteristic influences the evaluation of other characteristics. We tend to make inferences about unknown qualities based on observed outstanding traits. For example, if a person is perceived as highly likable, this perception can lead to them being assessed as very committed and helpful, even before these specific characteristics are directly observed or evaluated. The Halo effect can also be applied to negative traits. The Horn effect describes the tendency to interpret the actions of a person in a negative light, leading to negative attributions even for unrelated actions, while positive qualities may be overlooked or even doubted.

Hindsight Bias / Backsight Error
Hindsight bias refers to the phenomenon of distorting one's predictions or forecasts after the actual outcome becomes known. We tend to overestimate the predictability of an event in retrospect, along the lines of "Didn't I tell you...?".

Contrast Error
The contrast error occurs when our judgment is heavily influenced by the surrounding context. We often rely on the context of a situation as a benchmark for comparison. As a result, an object is evaluated more positively if it is preceded by a poorly evaluated object, compared to when it is presented on its own. Conversely, an object is evaluated more negatively if it is preceded by a positively evaluated object. It is important to note that, similar to the Anchor Effect, better performance or a superior product does not necessarily guarantee a positive evaluation.

Overconfidence Bias
The overconfidence bias, also known as self-overestimation, refers to the tendency to overestimate one's abilities and performance. This bias can manifest itself in three distinct ways. Firstly, individuals may overestimate their performance. Secondly, they may overestimate their performance relative to others. Lastly, self-overestimation can also pertain to one's knowledge. It has been observed that people overestimate themselves, especially in tasks that are easy to practice, while they tend to underestimate themselves in difficult tasks.

"It is easier to split an atomic nucleus than to split a prejudice."
- Albert Einstein

... and yet we encourage you to try to do just that. Recognizing the existence and influence of unconscious bias, and raising awareness about it, is a crucial initial step in diminishing its effects. Furthermore, you can outsmart your unconscious bias. In her TED Talk titled 'How to Outsmart Your Own Unconscious Bias,' Valerie Alexandra identifies three strategies for undermining the impact of unconscious cognitive bias:

Peturson, E. D., Cramer, K. M., & Pomerleau, C. M. (2011). Attribution errors and gender stereotypes: Perceptions of male and female experts on sex-typed material. Current Research in Social Psychology.

Go back