What Is Unconscious Bias? | Definition & Examples

Unconscious bias refers to the automatic associations and reactions that arise when we encounter a person or group. Instead of maintaining neutrality, we tend to associate positive or negative stereotypes with certain groups and let these biases influence our behavior towards them.

Example: Unconscious bias
You are walking home from a get-together with friends at night-time. You notice a figure wearing dark clothing coming your way. You immediately feel danger, and rush to cross the street. You then see the person pull something that looks like a weapon out of their pocket, causing you to break into a run. Looking back, you realise your mistake: the person was simply answering their phone.

Unconscious bias can lead to discriminatory behavior in healthcare, the workplace, educational settings, and beyond.

What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias is an implicit preference for (or aversion towards) a particular person or entity. These feelings can be either positive or negative, but they cause us to act unfairly towards others. This can manifest as affinity bias, or the tendency to favor people who are similar to us, but any identity-based aspect (e.g., age, gender identity, socioeconomic background, etc.) can be the target of unconscious bias.

We are, by definition, unaware of biases that affect our decisions and judgments: this is why they are called unconscious. For example, when most people hear the word “nurse,” they are more likely to picture a female, even if they don’t consciously believe that only women can be nurses. Because unconscious bias operates below our awareness, it can be challenging to acknowledge and manage.

What causes unconscious bias?

There are several factors at play within our unconscious biases:

  • Brain categorization. Humans have a natural tendency to assign everything into a relevant category. This happens unconsciously, but this categorizing also leads us to assign a positive or negative association to each category. Categories allow our brains to know what to do or how to behave, but classifications often cause us to overgeneralize.
  • We rely on heuristics. We often rely on “automatic” information processing to go through our day, involving little conscious thought. These mental shortcuts allow us to exert little mental effort in our everyday lives, and make swift judgments when needed.
  • Social and cultural dynamics. Our upbringing and social environment, as well as any direct and indirect experiences with members of various social groups, imprint on us. These shape our perceptions, both consciously and subconsciously.

Unconscious vs. explicit bias

Both unconscious and explicit bias involve judging others based on our assumptions rather than objective facts. However, the two are actually quite different.

  • Unconscious bias occurs when we have an inclination for or against a person or group that emerges automatically.
  • Explicit bias includes positive or negative attitudes that we are fully aware of and openly express. These attitudes form part of our worldview.

Despite their differences, unconscious bias can be just as problematic as explicit bias. Both can lead to discriminatory behavior.

Unconscious bias examples

Unconscious bias can lead to discriminatory behavior when it comes to hiring a diverse workforce.

Example: Unconscious bias and hiring decisions
Let’s say a manager is reviewing resumes for an open position at their company. The manager has a subconscious bias towards people who graduated from their alma mater. So when the manager sees a resume from someone who went to their school, they may give that candidate preferential treatment, even if the candidate’s qualifications are not as strong as someone who went to a different school.

In this case, the manager’s bias towards their alma mater is operating below their conscious awareness. They may not even realize they are giving preferential treatment to candidates from their school. This bias could potentially result in the manager overlooking highly qualified candidates who did not attend their alma mater.

How to reduce unconscious bias

Both positive and negative unconscious beliefs operate outside our awareness and can lead to structural and systemic inequalities. If we want to reduce it, we must first become conscious of it. The following strategies can help:

  • Taking the Harvard Implicit Bias Association Test (IAT) can help you realize that everyone, including you, has implicit or unconscious biases. Recognising them for what they are increases the likelihood that next time you won’t let these hidden biases affect your behaviour.
  • Seek out positive intergroup contact. Unconscious bias towards a particular group can be reduced through interaction with members of that group. For example, you can make it a point to engage in activities that include individuals from diverse backgrounds.
  • Counter-stereotyping. Exposure to information that defies persistent stereotypes about certain groups, such as images of male nurses, can counter gender-based stereotypes.
  • Unconscious bias training. Although raising awareness is important, it’s not sufficient to overcome unconscious biases. The most successful training programs are ones that allow individuals to discover their biases in a non-confrontational manner, helping them seek out the tools to help reduce and manage these biases.

Other types of research bias

Frequently asked questions about unconscious bias

What is implicit bias?

Implicit bias refers to attitudes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These attitudes can be either positive or negative. Affinity bias, or the tendency to gravitate towards people who are similar to us, is a type of implicit or unconscious bias.

What is similarity bias?

Similarity bias or affinity bias is a type of unconscious bias. It occurs when we show preference for people who are similar to us (i.e., people with whom we share a common attribute, such as physical appearance, hobbies, or educational background).

What is the opposite of explicit bias?

The opposite of explicit bias is implicit bias (or unconscious bias). This refers to all the subconscious evaluations we have formed about a certain group. Implicit bias can influence our interactions with members of this group without us realizing.

Why do demand characteristics matter in research?

Demand characteristics are a type of extraneous variable that can affect the outcomes of the study. They can invalidate studies by providing an alternative explanation for the results.

These cues may nudge participants to consciously or unconsciously change their responses, and they pose a threat to both internal and external validity. You can’t be sure that your independent variable manipulation worked, or that your findings can be applied to other people or settings.

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Kassiani Nikolopoulou

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex scientific information into easily accessible articles to help students. She specializes in writing about research methods and research bias.