What is implicit bias?

When we started looking for answering the question “What is unconscious bias?” we ended up at Mahzarin Banaji. Mahzarin is a professor of Social Ethics at Harvard and has been researching unconscious prejudices for years. She calls those unconscious bias “Mindbugs”.

Our brain has bugs, just like software, which sometimes does not do exactly what you actually want. Your brain has them, my brain, that of your neighbor and that of people on the other side of the world: we all have Mindbugs. However, we all also think that it will be okay for ourselves. Unfortunately, it is not. That is not intentional or  Esther Mollema about unconscious prejudices unwillingness. It is our brain that makes connections without being asked. We were born to have unconscious biases.

“Nurses always whine like that.” “Contractors cannot be trusted.” “You can’t talk to those from the helpdesk.” We put people in boxes and then we find something of the whole group. Even when we don’t know someone, we engage in a conversation with that assumption about the person that makes us interpret everything they say that way.

How do you know that you too have unconscious prejudices (Mindbugs)?

Test yourself: read the statements below.

  • “Men are better leaders.”
  • “Women who have children are no longer so ambitious.”
  • “Women with headscarves have a more traditional attitude and are therefore less suitable as leaders.”

If as you read these statements you thought: “That’s not a Mindbug, is it? That’s just really true! “Then you can assume Mindbugs are involved.

The statements may be true for an individual but not for the whole group . As soon as your brain makes the connection between external characteristics (a tall man with a deep voice) and what he / she “thus” will be (a born leader), your Mindbugs are at work. And again: we all have them.

Realizing that Mindbugs are just human can change the way we think and speak about them, says Mahzarin Banaji. We can talk about it, not from a deep sense of guilt, but from a sense of connection with other people . And from a shared responsibility to do something about it .

A few examples of unconscious biases you may have are:

  • “Men are better leaders.”
    A typical example of a Mindbug that originated a long time ago, when we were still roaming the savannah in groups of 150 people. The strongest figure was in the lead and in charge. That was a man at the time.
  • “Women who have children are not so ambitious anymore.”
    Don’t we really think we can see her suddenly leaving work sooner? But it turns out: colleagues who notice that a female colleague has to leave earlier or is not there because of her child, remember this three months later. The fact that the female colleague in question has already made up for that “lost” time is forgotten after two weeks.
  • “People with a typically non-Western name are not highly educated.”
    The University of Chicago conducted research with resumes. Above one resume was a non-Western name, above the other a typically American one. The “typical American” people were invited fifty percent more often than the “non-American”. Subconsciously, in a nanosecond, we think: the person with the non-Western name is probably not that highly educated.
  • “Women with headscarves have a more traditional attitude and are therefore less suitable as leaders.”
    Those who have this Mindbug may subconsciously think that women are obliged by their partners or parents to wear a headscarf. Women who apparently act like this cannot contribute to management positions, they next think.
  • “Employees over 55 years old are quenched, inflexible and don’t really want to anymore.”
    Twenty years ago, only a quarter of the over-55s worked. During reorganisations and in times of high unemployment, we let them out of early retirement or took pre-pension. That has fueled our Mindbug that people over 50 don’t really feel like working and that they are inflexible.
  • “Someone who does not speak perfect Dutch can never really be an expert on a subject.”
    Our brain is very attentive to the accent and the way we speak. That affects whether we believe the message and take it seriously. For someone with a dialect or foreign accent, we pay more attention to pronunciation than message.

It all starts with recognizing and acknowledging our unconscious biases.
Do you also want to know whether you and your colleagues are “bothered” by Mindbugs?

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