We all know bias exists. We’ve all experienced bias against us in some way or another during our lifetime. Some of us are honest enough to own the fact that we too have demonstrated bias towards another, somewhere along the way.
Even though we know bias exists, the conversation is still very much in the shadows. Highly publicized events as in the case of Starbucks is bringing the issues surrounding unconscious bias to light and is propelling people and organisations to have the conversation and act. Whatever form of bias may be present, our differences are hindering productivity, creativity, innovation, cohesion and ultimately our organisation’s bottom line.
So what is it and why is it so hard to change?
Unconscious: “the part of the mind which is inaccessible to the conscious mind but which affects behaviour and emotions” (Google, 2018).
Bias: “unfair, illegitimate or unjustifiable judgement that goes beyond the objective needs or evidence in a particular situation” (Karen Morley, co-founder of Gender Worx).
Here are 3 reasons unconscious bias is so difficult to change.
As humans, from the age of 0-7 years old we exist in a hypnotic-like state. We have no critical factor. Our critical factor only begins forming in the human brain from the age of 7 years old. It’s finished forming by the time we’re 11 years of age. Our critical factor enables us to distinguish fantasy from reality. It’s the separation of our conscious mind and our unconscious mind.
Prior to our critical factor forming we absorb the world around us as truth. All emotions we will ever feel during the course of our lifetime we feel, for the first time, from 0-7 years old. This time in our lives is more commonly known as our Imprint Phase.
If we consider this foundational part of our existence as the basis on which we form our beliefs and values that govern the rest of our lives, it’s a pivotal stage of our development. The neurology we form during this phase is programmed so strongly, we’re indoctrinated by way of our environment, society and our culture.
While the world we currently live in persecutes minority groups, the main differentiation is the fact that because they’re a minority in contrast with the general population, they’re strongly highlighted and to an extent, outcast. There’s strength in numbers.
Cults, religions and the like have simply been indoctrinated with a set of beliefs and values by which they choose to live their lives. To be clear, everybody is indoctrinated with a set of beliefs. All of us. Those beliefs determine our behaviour and therefore the way we’re perceived by others. It’s only when the majority of people are indoctrinated in similar ways do we highlight the minority and persecute them. This is closely linked to Confirmation Bias. I believe the true persecution comes from our belief in others not having choice or a conscious awareness of their values and beliefs.
We all have beliefs and values. Anytime our beliefs or values are questioned, cognitive dissonance occurs. Cognitive dissonance is when we experience brain ache from being told something different to what know whole-heartedly to be true. It’s uncomfortable and we’re biologically programmed to fight against it. This is a survival mechanism we’re born with for survival.
By the time we’re working adults, changing unconscious bias requires re-programming years of indoctrinated beliefs. It requires deep and often uncomfortable, internal change.
2. Deep internal work takes time and requires accountability
For all the change managers out there, the change curve demonstrates this journey beautifully. Individuals will experience internal change entirely in their own unique way and within their own time. If you have siblings, your siblings will in some (or many) ways be different to you. This is often despite being reared in similar environments. Why is this the case?
Referring back to our Imprint Phase, we all experience events differently. Our interpretation is our own. Genetics are a factor in how we view the world, as well as where we’re born in relation to our siblings (first born, second born, etc.) or if we’re an only child. We can never truly know how somebody else interprets the world, so recognising and overcoming unconscious bias is an incredibly isolated process and change will only occur to the extent one is willing to let change occur.
Most transformational change requires time, accountability and honesty.
3. Honesty is often linked with shame and vulnerability
Often being honest with ourselves can bring about an element of shame, embarrassment and other not-so-nice emotions. We’re indoctrinated to know how to behave within the constructs of the society and culture we’re raised in. We have feelings and whether those feelings are right or wrong, emotions can go against the values and beliefs of our greater society.
Confirmation bias (anybody seen Push by Derren Brown on Netflix occurs when the majority of people feel one way and we feel compelled to go that same way because everybody else is, even when we strongly believe the opposite.
As heard animals, humans will often shame someone who doesn’t abide by the rules of the ‘pack’ - just as dogs and horses do. Back in our caveman days, there was strength in numbers and staying together meant staying alive. If rules weren’t obeyed, the culprit would be shamed. This was to stimulate a feeling of guilt and anguish to then allow the person to humble, apologise and return.
Shame, particularly in a culture where saving face is considered important (Japan) or tall poppy syndrome exists (Australia), can develop a psyche of not wanting to change or experience discomfort out of fear of standing out. With increased globalisation and talk of diversity and inclusion in organisations, uncovering unconscious bias has never been more important.
Unconscious bias has been proven to decrease productivity and innovation in the workplace and exists everywhere. To make a big shift to overcome unconscious bias, the shifts must start internally. Within ourselves.