What Is Unconscious Bias (and Why Should You Know About It)?

What Is Unconscious Bias (and Why Should You Know About It)?

It’s crazy to think that within the first few seconds of meeting or encountering a new person, our minds have already processed, analyzed, and made judgments about the person standing in front of us. The mind “determines” a person’s age, race, gender, sexuality, and appearance and quickly connects what it sees with what it knows to be stereotypically “true” of certain identities..

To an extent, we cannot stop our minds from processing information and jumping to a conclusion. The act of making snap judgments is a prehistoric human instinct that is hardwired into every individual’s brain. But that does not mean that humans are inherently incapable of combating unconscious bias. In fact, if humans made a conscious effort to avoid stereotyping and labeling others, we could effectively break down the societal norms and barriers that have separated and divided various groups of people for centuries.

Unconscious bias is most prevalent in two places: in the media and in the workplace. When we consume mass media, we tend to accept news stories or online postings at face value without ourselves looking deeper into the issues at hand. We fall prey to the stereotypical, and often discriminatory, content being portrayed. We fail to realize that by accepting these stereotypes and generalizations, we are promoting attitudes and actions that marginalize specific social groups in society.

For instance, the media often presents males as the main characters in TV shows and movies. Women make up a mere 17% of the background and ensemble characters in these shows and movies. When women are spotlighted, they are most often depicted in a hypersexualized, one-dimensional, and sidelined manner. When people are conditioned to see women in a certain light by the media, they are likely to carry these stereotypical ideas over into the real world.

The workplace is often referred to as a breeding spot for gender discrimination but many people neglect to discuss the racial biases that also exist. We are quick to envision a businessman as a white male and his inferiors as men of other ethnic backgrounds. There’s an unspoken idea that people of certain races and ethnicities can only climb so high in achieving positions of power. For those people of ethnic backgrounds who do achieve leadership status in their careers, they are seen as a “miracles,” as if it is a pure luck that they could achieve such a level of success. These examples of unconscious bias do not indicate that people are inherently racist, but rather that society tends to perpetuate stereotypes.

Perhaps that best way to combat unconscious bias is to acknowledge that every person, at some point in time, has and will make a snap judgment about another person or group of people. Once we as a society become more aware of the stereotypes we ourselves perpetuate, we can begin to change the way that we perceive the world. We can make sure to take the time to really get to know someone as an individual and not as a member of a specific group or category.

Unconscious bias will always be present, but that doesn’t mean that we have to allow it to control our judgments about others.

Cover image courtesy of Shutterstock.