I’m sure you’ve heard about Implicit or Subconscious Biases. Let’s talk about what they are and how you can manage them. This is especially important for anyone working in technology because you’re creating the tools and solutions that touch so many people!
Oxford Dictionary defines biases as “cause to feel or show inclination or prejudice for or against someone or something”. Biases can be positive or negative and they’re typically the result of certain stereotypes that have been engrained on our subconscious minds.
Implicit biases can cloud our judgement and decision making, especially when it comes to decisions that we need to make on the spot. They may lead to discrimination or unfair outcomes for certain groups of people, even if you don’t want to do that intentionally. They’re called subconscious for a reason, so you won’t even notice doing it.
There are many potential outcomes of our biases, but they’re especially dangerous when it comes to building technology. By unintentionally passing our biases onto the algorithms we create, we might be creating solutions and tools that discriminate against certain groups of people.
And unfortunately, we can see results of biases in tech already, certain technologies, like facial recognition, discriminate against people of colour, women and older people. I have a separate post sharing 5 examples of how technology can be racist.
The point is, we need to be able to make decisions and create technology that is free from biases. Our technological solutions should treat everyone equally and be inclusive, solving problems instead of creating more of them.
It takes conscious effort to manage our biases but I believe it’s the only way we can start treating everyone equally and objectively. So let’s see how we can do that!
Biases as primal responses
You’re not a bad person for having biases, everyone has them. Studies show that they act as shortcuts in our brains to help us process information by categorising it and linking certain beliefs to those categories. This allows us to make snap decisions on the spot that can help protect us. From the standpoint of evolution, that is one the things that has enabled us to survive.
As you know, those primal responses can take over our brains sometimes – and the fight or flight response is a great example of that. I see biases in the same category, they’re normal and theoretically, they are there to help us survive.
However, in the context of modern life, most of these primal responses don’t serve us as well. Fight or flight response is my biggest enemy when it comes to public speaking – I have a separate post on the topic and how to calm yourself down in those situations.
Biases and those category shortcuts cloud our decision-making process, making us prone to following stereotypes subconsciously. Everyone has biases, you can’t avoid them and it’s very likely that you’re not even aware of them, they’re called subconscious for a reason! The real question is what are you going to do about those biases.
Step 1: Awareness
Jennifer Eberhardt who is a social psychologist and a professor in the Department of Psychology at Stanford University has been studying biases for a while. In fact, she wrote a book about it, called “Biased”. She says that understanding your biases is step number one.
So let’s look at how you can become aware of what biases you have!
As we’ve mentioned, they’re subconscious, so this step can be hard if you’re trying to do that by simply reflecting on your actions. Luckily, there are tests that you can do, which help you determine your biases through association.
The first time I did one of those tests was during my onboarding at Google and it was very eye-opening. Some of my biases went against my conscious beliefs, which is pretty crazy! How can my conscious and subconscious beliefs be so different from each other? But then when I reflected on some of my snap decisions in the past, the subconscious always won. Which is kind of scary, right?
Are you curious to find out what implicit bias you have? Here’s a link a Free Test by Harvard University, the same test that I did at Google, in the description. This test has a ton of different categories you can choose from and I think the more categories you explore – the better.
Take note of your results and keep them in mind the next time those biases come in play.
Step 2: Slow Down
Jennifer Eberhardt says that step n2 is to slow down. Next time you’re about to make a quick decision, stop and pause. We’re especially vulnerable to our implicit biases when making snap decisions, so give yourself time to think about it and reflect on whether you are being objective or if your biases are clouding your judgment.
Doing this will allow you to see your biases in action and this awareness will help you manage their effect on your decisions!
Step 3: Building habits
Jennifer Eberhardt says that eliminating biases altogether might not be possible, but managing them and making this reflection a habit absolutely is. Awareness is great, but it won’t get you there unless you practice managing your biases and question your decisions on a regular basis. Make it a habit.
If you’re looking for advice on how to build sustainable habits, I have another post on that too – with a Free Habit Formation Worksheet. You might as well optimise your habit formation process 😉
Step 4: Do your research
Other resources (I’ll link them below) also suggest intentionally trying to become more empathetic towards the groups you might be subconsciously discriminating against. For example, if you find that you have biases against older people or people of a certain race – or people of a certain sexual orientation, try to understand what their experiences are like.
Follow more people from that demographic on social media, connect with them in person, read books and watch movies – try to really get into their shoes. The more you do your research the more diversity you will see among that demographic. And the more stories you learn about, the more empathetic you will be towards that group of people.
Yes, your subconscious biases might not completely go away as a result. But that empathy will help you make more mindful decisions. It will help you pause and consider the stories you’ve learned about and hopefully will make you more objective. It will help you manage your biases and become a better, more objective decision maker and human.
Let me know what your thoughts are on the topic and if you have any other techniques and recommendations to share, please do so in the comments. I’m also super curious about what you get in that Implicit bias test I’ve linked in the description, let me know if the results surprise you!
My research for this post:
https://diversity.ucsf.edu/resources/strategies-address-unconscious-bias https://time.com/5558181/jennifer-eberhardt-overcoming-implicit-bias/ https://www.vox.com/2014/12/26/7443979/racism-implicit-racial-bias https://www.verywellmind.com/implicit-bias-overview-4178401