“I’m not racist but…” Is unconscious bias just human nature?

by Rebecca Dalton

A friend of mine, recently back from a holiday in Yorkshire, commented on how the break had been extra enjoyable because of the friendliness of the locals. I was surprised: ‘Ooh aren’t they all a bit dour up there?’ I said. And then I thought of all the people from Yorkshire I knew or had ever known: warm and friendly every single one. Yet, despite this real life evidence, my ingrained viewpoint had persisted. My next thought was relief that this classic unconscious bias had never caused me to treat anybody from that particular part of the North-East differently from anyone else. But then I had to call myself out again, as I wasn’t even aware I had this prejudice, how can I be sure it hasn’t affected my actions?

Perhaps everyone is convinced they are clever enough to be immune to their own personal prejudices. I have been shocked by my own capacity for self-delusion. Becoming ‘woke’ to the attributes of those from God’s Own Country made me want to explore the wider issue of unconscious bias – is it possible to be completely fair and neutral, or is bias an intrinsic part of human nature?

Professor of Psychology at University College London, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, argues that it’s evolutionarily advantageous for us to be biased: mental shortcuts help us to function in a complex world and have done for millennia. He says ‘thinking slow’ may help avoid knee-jerk reactions but can also backfire: making someone ultra-aware of something could make it even harder for them not to notice it. For instance, Chamorro-Premuzic says: ‘The louder a person’s inner voice tells him he should not pay attention to a [job] candidate’s gender, the more he will focus on the candidate’s gender.’

But Rina Goldenberg Lynch, founder and CEO of Voice At The Table, says being mindful of possible double standards is helpful. In the case of gender bias, for instance, she suggests: ‘Ask yourself, if this were a man behaving in the same or similar fashion, how would I perceive him. Would I think he was being aggressive or uncaring. Or would I internally use the less pejorative adjective ‘assertive’? Would I commend his leadership skills?’

And one Black-British woman of Caribbean descent, says while it may not be possible to eradicate it completely, it’s vital to acknowledge that unconscious bias exists. As a secondary school teacher, she feels she’s developed a ‘gut instinct’ as to when cultural bias may be coming into play. She says sometimes asking a non-confrontational question can allow someone to ‘process their views’ without being embarrassed; like the time a colleague assumed a challenging pupil’s mother ‘was probably a single parent.’ She says: ‘I felt [the colleague] had good intentions as they were trying to look past the student’s behaviour and more to the root cause… once they realised there was no fact to their comment they began to look sheepish and I left it there. I think every day things, such as actively mixing with people from differing backgrounds and groups, and thinking more before making a judgement, go a long way.’

Chamorro-Premuzic argues that if behaviour comes first, thinking may follow. So, a person may have ‘horrible internal biases’ but if they behave in an unbiased way, they (and their company) will develop a reputation for being unbiased, ‘what matters is what other people think,’ he says. Chamorro-Premuzic acknowledges this goes against the trend for authenticity and may sound superficial – or even Machiavellian, but it could start a virtuous circle of increasing diversity and inclusion, whether that’s the recruiter’s intention or not. He believes what’s important is what happens, not what people think.

For me, I think that becoming aware of my bias is essential to changing my internal narrative. In addition, from what I’ve heard so far, a two-pronged approach seems right; training for those who are open to it, and then a system for encouraging, or nudging – or forcing? –  people to behave, while society waits for their thinking to catch up. But I want to continue to explore the different viewpoints on unconscious bias. It’s such a complex issue that this article can only be part of the story – or perhaps the beginning of the story.