Are our people business decisions really being made by the unconscious bias?

As humans we often make instinctive decisions about other people. Decisions which ‘feel right’ at the time and often these ‘snap’ decisions will be right.

We are likely to think that we have assessed the pros and cons, considered alternatives, and weighed the possible outcomes before making that decision. But what if the people decisions we’re making aren’t really based on the facts? What if we’re being influenced by hidden thoughts and feelings we’re not even aware of? What if our decisions are made or at least influenced by feelings buried deep within the complex networks of our brain? What if it is these, not the dispassionate facts which are really driving our decisions ?

In fact our behaviour towards other people is more likely to be influenced by our instinctive feelings than by any complex thinking about the facts at hand even if we convince ourselves it is purely a rational decision. There is a growing body of scientific evidence, and a growing number of social and work psychologists and leaders, who now believe that our unconscious people preferences (biases) play a significant part in the way we engage with people and the decisions we make about them.

Our brains are hard wired to rapidly categorise people instinctively, and we use the most obvious and visible categories to do this: gender, age, body weight, physical attractiveness, skin colour, disability etc. We also use many other less visible dimensions such as accent, social background, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, education, and even job title. These categories automatically assign a whole suite of unconscious characteristics – good and bad – to anyone categorised as being from that group. They are automatic and unconscious biases over which we have little control, and they influence everyone, no matter how unbiased we think we may be.

When individuals interact with one another the abundant information available to them about each other is cognitively overwhelming. We simply cannot process everything about each new person we encounter. As a result information about people and objects is suppressed, grouped and placed into easy to use categories. This enables us to make rapid judgments about new people and situations without having to process in great detail everything about every individual and context.

Social psychologists call this phenomenon “social categorisation”. The advantage of categorisation is that it allows us to save time and effort when processing information about others, thereby allowing us to pay attention to other tasks or more novel information with our limited processing resources. Categorisation has a useful and necessary social function in providing us with handy ‘scripts’ for what to expect from others. Without these prejudgments social encounters would become very stressful and complex as both parties seek to establish the roles and expectations of the other every time. This prejudgement of groups of people is both normal, and to be expected as our default position.

A downside of categorisation is that when we encounter a person with whom we have associations, any ambiguity in the encounter will be interpreted in line with those associations. They also produce small and spontaneous behavioural effects such as colder, less friendly nonverbal reactions. With the luxury of time and attention it may be possible for people to consciously consider their reactions but the speed and pervasive influence of the unconscious bias is such that the impulsive automatic reaction has often already become behaviour. The impact may not always be strong enough to be overt nor lead to legal censure but can often be ‘micro-behaviours’ (or micro-inequities) such as giving less eye contact, taking less interest in and feeling less comfortable with some groups of people.

At work we are usually obliged to respond to others with limited time and attentional resources which creates the ideal conditions for our unconscious biases to take control of our decisions. When we are rushed, stressed, distracted, confused or angry this can lead to bias impinging upon our actions and decisions which is why bias may impinge on behaviour more often when we are busy with other things or under an emotional load. This automatic or implicit bias is largely inevitable and often unrelated to our conscious processes, and so escapes our insight and conscious control.

In conclusion, it seems that our decisions around who we recruit, sponsor, mentor, reward and even fire are more a product of our caveman neurology, our upbringing and the media we consume as they are our deliberations. A knowledge of these processes and how we can naturally control out biases given the right environment is an important new insight for managers working with ever more diverse clients and staff.

Photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash

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