Unconscious Bias: You Are More Than Your Amygdala

By Stephanie Stevens

Can you think of a time when you've made a quick decision, either personally or as part of a group, that you later regretted? It’s very likely that you made that decision based on some type of unconscious bias and didn’t realize it.

What is unconscious bias and why does it happen?
Unconscious or implicit biases are social stereotypes about people that we form without our conscious awareness. They are essentially mental “shortcuts” that allow us to make fast decisions under pressure. We all have them, and they are triggered automatically and outside of our control when we feel strong emotions like stress or fear.

Having biases has likely been around for nearly as long as being human. In the relative scheme of things, we have been "civilized" for only about 6,000 of the 250,000 to 400,000 years homo sapiens have existed. That means we have spent hundreds of thousands of years depending on the ability to make quick judgments to stay safe from harm. As a result, our brains have evolved to react. 

If we perceive a threat, a small but very influential part of our brains called the amygdala, or limbic system, triggers a fight, flight or freeze response before we have a chance to process whether the threat is real or not.

The good news is that we are more than our amygdalas. Our brains are primarily made up of what's called the neocortex, which helps us reason and manage our responses. That means we can train ourselves to take a moment to process what’s happening and determine what our course of action should be in a way that goes beyond our first impulse.

How many types of bias are there?
While there are more than a hundred different types of cognitive biases, Talent Management and Organization Development Executive Nuala Campany, who teaches workshops on Recognizing and Managing Unconscious Bias and Interpersonal Communication Skills for UC San Diego Extension’s Leadership & Management Essentials series, follows the SEEDS model, which has five major categories:

  • Similarity Bias: “People like me are better than others not like me.”

  • Expedience Bias: “If it feels right, it must be true.”

  • Experience Bias: “My perceptions are accurate.”

  • Distance Bias: “Near is better than far.”

  • Safety Bias: “Bad feels stronger than good.”

Unconscious biases can have important effects and consequences. For example, they can inform our decisions about who we hire and promote, how we compensate our direct reports or give feedback to colleagues, and how we assign work or collaborate with staff on their professional development. In our personal lives, biases can affect who we get involved with and interact with on a daily basis.

Unfortunately, biases can also contribute to making illogical choices. For example, when put under pressure to make an immediate decision between getting $100 today or $150 in a month, distance biases urge us to take the $100 today. Safety biases make us avoid risk by believing that bad experiences are more impactful than good ones (e.g. losing $20 feels worse than finding $20 feels good). Experience biases, which are dependent on our expectations, past experiences, personality and emotional state, can breed misunderstandings and cause us to undervalue someone else’s point of view or overvalue the extent that others agree with us, which creates some very uncomfortable situations.

How do we get rid of our unconscious biases?
Nuala Campany notes that completely eradicating bias and prejudice is impossible, but you can start to recognize when biases arise and make the choice to change certain behaviors to be more open and empathetic.

  • Slow down your responses

  • Realize that what you see is only one perspective

  • Consider that those with differing points of view may see something you have not

  • Be willing to suspend your agenda and listen to other’s views

  • Take into account what your unintended impact may be on others

  • Seek to validate your own thinking as well as that of others

When we need to make immediate, life-saving decisions, unconscious biases are often a good thing. However, in our day-to-day lives, they can blind us from receiving relevant, valuable information that, in the long run, will benefit us. Taking a moment to be mindful of our biases and their effect on others is a positive step in the right direction.

To learn more about unconscious bias and how to counteract it, visit the Leadership & Management Essentials series page.

How have unconscious biases affected you? Let us know in the comments below.


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