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What is unconscious bias?

To celebrate the launch of NHS England’s new guide on how to create diverse boards (which we were privileged to author) we’re publishing a series of posts on how to make diversity part of the fabric of your organisation. All these posts are modified versions of what’s in the guide, so if you want more info make sure you download it (it’s free!).

In our first post, we asked why team diversity is important and came up with some (hopefully) surprising answers. We then looked at what ‘diversity’ actually means (and why it might not be what you think).

In the next few posts, we want to look at unconscious bias and what this means for you and your organisation. This is a big topic so we’ve split it in two:

  • what unconscious bias is (what we look at here)

  • tactics to overcome bias (what we’ll look at next time)


Before we jump in, here’s a quick quiz. Below are three facts. Read them and then jot down what you think is the most likely explanation.

  • Researchers at the University of Illinois looked at six decades’ worth of death rates from US hurricanes. They found that hurricanes with female names are more deadly.

  • YouTube launched an app that allowed people to upload videos direct from their mobile phone. They soon found, however, that between 5-10% of uploads were upside down: that is, people were shooting their videos ‘incorrectly’.

  • Between 1789 and 2012 the tallest US presidential candidate won the most votes in 67% of elections. The last time a president of below-average height was elected was 1899.

For a bonus point, can you identify what all these puzzles have in common?

The answer is, of course, that attempts have been made to explain all these curiosities with reference to ‘unconscious bias’. Here is how:

  • Researchers believe that people take hurricanes with female names less seriously because they associate female names with gentleness and warmth. This is supported by another exercise in which people were asked how they would prepare for an imaginary storm, with some people told the hurricane had a male name and others a female name. ‘People imagining a ‘female’ hurricane were not as willing to seek shelter,’ a researcher said

  • Google (the app’s developers) soon identified the problem: the software was designed for right-handed users, but left-handed people usually rotate their phones 180 degrees when using them. ‘This is just one example of how unconscious biases influence our actions every day,’ Google said. ‘Without realizing it, we’d created an app that worked best for our almost exclusively right-handed developer team’

  • Taller leaders are seen as stronger leaders, researchers say. ‘The advantage of taller candidates is potentially explained by perceptions associated with height: taller presidents are rated by experts as 'greater', and having more leadership and communication skills’.

These scenarios are just three examples of how unconscious bias plays out in the real world. But what is unconscious bias?

According to a team of world-renowned social psychologists led by Harvard University professor Dr Mahzarin Banaji, the human brain is hard-wired to make quick decisions that draw on a variety of assumptions and experiences without us even knowing it is doing so. This ensures we can function properly in our day-to-day lives, but can mean we miss distinctions and subtleties as we focus on larger generalisations.

Ultimately, the way we interpret information and interact with people is determined by these largely unconscious assumptions we have about the way the world is structured and patterned. But just because these beliefs are unconscious, we shouldn’t assume the way they shape our interactions with people won’t be noticed. We’ve talked to many people who have felt that they weren’t part of a team but couldn’t quite put their finger on why. Perhaps you’ve had this feeling of just not fitting in too.

In his recent book, Challenging Boardroom Homogeneity, Professor Aaron Dhir of Yale University looked at the experience of board members in Norway following the introduction of legislation mandating that boards of all listed companies should have at least 40% female membership. Professor Dhir found many women brought new perspectives, experiences, angles, and viewpoints to the boardroom, which encouraged:

  • better decision making, including the value of dissent

  • more effective risk mitigation and crisis management, and a better balance between risk-welcoming and risk aversion behaviour

  • positive changes to the boardroom environment and culture

  • positive changes in the behaviour of men

This is not to say there were not also challenges. Participants cited prolonged decision-making, less initial bonding, and additional conflicts due to the increase in different perspectives as issues they faced. Management had to get used to being deeply and fully prepared for the questions being asked.

But this should not surprise us: a shared bias within a group allows a sense of trust and harmony to develop. The problem is that this can also lead to a false sense of satisfaction. As Columbia University’s Katherine Phillips points out, homogeneous groups don’t come to better solutions, but are convinced that they have. Heterogeneous groups, on the other hand, come to better solutions – but tend to think that they haven’t.

All of which means that tackling bias requires courage. It won’t be an easy thing to do (at first), either personally or organisationally. But the rewards are there.

This post is a modified version of a chapter in NHS England’s new guide, NHS workforce race equality: A case for diverse boards. Download the full report here.

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