The truth is that we all have biases in our thinking. From birth, our minds develop quick cognitive pathways that help us to process information that we cannot rigorously analyse every time. These pathways are built on associations. When we observe a pattern of behaviour often enough, our minds will make the associations so quickly that we will not consciously ‘think’ about them. This is our implicit thinking process at work. It is our very own autopilot function.
A lot of the time, our implicit thinking process is incredibly useful. Consider how easily you are reading this blog post now. You’re not sounding out each letter in every word. Over time, your mind has built up implicit associations between letters and sounds. You don’t have to think consciously about those associations and this frees up your mind to think more rigorously about the meaning of the text. If we did not have the ability to make automatic associations like this, all the simple tasks that we perform each day would require far more thought and energy.
So where does the bias creep in? Because quick associations are made intuitively, we don’t give ourselves time to apply logic and reasoning to them. This makes our implicit thinking process far more susceptible to errors and bias. If you were to picture a gifted student, would you say that student is more likely to be a surgeon or a plumber? On account of being a gifted student, you would probably say a surgeon, right? But if you were to take the time to apply some logic to that question, the answer would be a plumber. There are far more plumbers than surgeons, so statistically a career in plumbing is a more likely outcome.
That’s not the only implicit association you probably made in that example. When you pictured that student as a would-be surgeon or plumber, was it a man or a woman you saw? Most people will picture a man in either of those roles because their associations with men and those careers are stronger. That may be statistically true – men outnumber women as surgeons and as plumbers – but consider the effect of having such strong associations. Do we unconsciously look for traditionally masculine traits when evaluating the competence of a surgeon or a plumber?
Associative thinking is of course laden with stereotypes. These are the ‘rules of thumb’ that our mind will go to on the fly. The problem is that stereotypes are replete with information about how we expect people to behave. Asians are good at maths. Women are more emotional. When these intuitive expectations are challenged, the experience can be jarring. Remember how disappointing it was to find that the female partner had no empathy for your childcare woes?
So, what can you do about it?
As a starting point, we need to recognise that there may be a contradiction in our automatic thinking and our reflective attitudes. More often than not, people will have unconscious biases that do not reflect their conscious views about the world.
For example, many women who regard themselves as feminists regularly report that they have been found to have an unconscious bias for men in leadership positions. This doesn’t mean that they consciously think men make better leaders. It merely reflects the fact that since birth they have observed more men in these positions than women and their minds have naturally made a strong association between men and leadership. The more an association is reinforced by observation, the stronger the association becomes.
For those who want to measure their own biases, taking the time to perform an Implicit Association Test (IAT) is an invaluable experience. These can be done anonymously and online for free via Project Implicit, a not-for-profit organisation founded by researchers with the goal of educating the public about hidden biases.
The next step is to use this information to critically assess the way you and others are thinking when key decisions are being made. In other words, slow down the decision-making process and unpack the implicit associations that are being made. Don’t just rely on your default settings to come to a decision and be wary of others who insist on relying on ‘gut instincts’ alone.
Laura Douglas is Special Counsel at Justitia. To view her profile, click here.
This article has been published in the Law Institute Journal’s ‘According to Merit’ column.