Unconscious Bias: Peeking Beneath the Veil

Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.

The Definition of Bias:  A bias is an inflexible positive or negative conscious or unconscious belief about the nature, character, and abilities of an individual based on the group to which that person belongs. Biases About Women

Defining a bias is easy, identifying it is more complicated. Or is it? In fact, in most cases, lifting the mental veil that conceals our biases is a straight-forward matter of practicing the art of internal observation.

Biases, you see, are beliefs. As such they live inside our brains waiting to be noticed – first as thoughts and then as actions. The trick is to examine your thoughts about the people you encounter. Here’s a simple simple activity – one which is excerpted from my book, The Diversity and Inclusion Handbook – that will help you do just that. Give it a try and then pass it on to your team. You’ll be amazed how many valuable insights it reveals.

Activity: Identifying My Biases

Step I: Think of a person you work with and answer this question: What are my negative or positive thoughts, beliefs, and perceptions about this person?

Step II: Now ask yourself these three additional questions:

I. How long have I known/worked with him or her? 

  1. Quite a while
  2. A little while 
  3. I just met the person recently

II. How well do I know him or her? 

  1. Very well 
  2. Somewhat 
  3. Not at all well

3. Why do I think, believe, perceive those things about him or her? What is the basis of my feelings? 

  1. My interactions with him or her (experience with the individual) 
  2. What others have told me about him or her (hearsay) 
  3. What I conclude is based on his or her background and demographics (assumption based on traits or group identity)

Review your answers to these questions. If you’ve known the person for quite a while, know him or her very well, and your feelings are based on actual experience, what you feel about that person does not fall under our definition of bias. We know this because you are clearly getting your information from this one person by direct knowledge.

All other answers suggest a possible bias on your part. This is because your conclusions about this person are based, not on knowledge of the individual, but on assumptions about him or her and/or the group to which he or she belongs.

But, now to the good news. Even though it is sometimes painful, becoming aware of your biases makes you more capable of controlling the misjudgments and disrespectful behaviors they create. There’s even more good news: Each time you succeed at seeing a person as an individual, not merely as a member of a group, you will discover that, in most cases, he or she does not conform to your assumptions. That discovery, when repeated often enough, has a powerful way of eroding your bias.

Click here to purchase The Diversity and Inclusion Handbook

Sondra Thiederman can be contacted for webinars and in-person presentations by clicking here or calling 619-583-4478. For additional information, go to www.thiederman.com.

© copyright 2014 Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.

Feel free to reprint or re-post as long as copyright and website information (www.thiederman.com) are attached.


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