The Connection Between Unconscious Bias and How Our Brains Work

Chances are, you’ve probably heard the term unconscious bias (also known as implicit bias) before. Whether you’ve witnessed or experienced it, to truly understand what it really means, it’s helpful to start by understanding how our brains work and the connection they have to how we absorb and process information.

The Process of Mental Shortcuts

Every single second in the day, our brains are taking in a massive amount of information – about 11 million pieces per second. But we can only consciously process about 40 of those 11 million pieces per second. With that being said, our brains rely heavily on our subconscious minds to process, filter, and sort incoming information. That’s done by taking mental shortcuts, organizing information through a process of quick filtering and quick association. We rely on patterns that we’ve picked up from the world around us to help us quickly make sense of all the information we digest each day.

For a better understanding of this process, let’s try a quick exercise. We’re going to give you a math problem, and we’d like you to say, out loud, the answer as fast as you can. Ready? Here we go. 2 plus 2? All right. That was super easy, right? You knew the answer immediately, almost intuitively, without actually having to add up the numbers in your brain.

Why? Well, there’s this pattern that 2 plus 2 equals 4 that you’ve been exposed to tens or even hundreds of thousands of times over the course of your life. So, when you hear 2 plus 2, your brain pulls that pattern to mind, giving you the ability to spit out an answer without using up any mental energy. It’s helpful, adaptive, and actually critical to human functioning so our brains can handle processing information without depleting our mental energy.

Challenges of Quick Decision Making

The challenge, though, is that the mode of quick decision making can be prone to error, and it’s especially prone to error when we’re making decisions about people. Why? Well, some of the most powerful people-related patterns our brains are exposed to include things like cultural stereotypes, leading to unconscious bias. And the tricky part is, you don’t actually have to believe in a stereotype for it to be a pattern your brain relies on to help make decisions about people. Overall, unconscious bias or the unconscious assumptions our brains make are the mental shortcuts we take but can lead to systematic errors in decision-making.

To learn more about how unconscious bias affects organizations, how to recognize bias and where it exists in the workplace, and strategies to minimize bias in your organization download our whitepaper on Managing Unconscious Bias: Strategies to Manage Bias & Build More Diverse, Inclusive Organizations.

January 10, 2023

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