Have a look at the image above. Can you read it?
If so, you are experiencing something very similar to an unconscious bias. Much like the symbols in the image, unconscious biases are rapid-fire shortcuts that we use to understand and assess a situation, so that we know how to act. In this way, bias almost functions as an unspoken language of assumptions of which we are often unaware. In other words, you don't look at the image above and try to figure out what each symbol means; you simply choose the appropriate one for you and head for it. Understanding the symbols allows you to quickly solve a problem.
One point here is that bias isn't always negative. Neither is it positive. In the example above, the shortcuts are neither negative nor positive. As with all data, it's not the data themselves that carry value: it's what we impute to them. So if you are a heterosexual looking at that sign, it might seem totally neutral to you. If you are trans, it might seem fraught depending upon what city and / or country you are in.
The thing that makes unconscious bias so interesting but also so difficult is this kind of complexity.
Recently, I was at my favourite café. The waitress was young and smiley. She seated us and took our order. A few moments later, the door to the café opened, and an older black woman came in. The waitress went over and said to her in a friendly way, "would you like to use the loo?" The woman said no, she'd like to have lunch.
My instant reaction was to think that this was an instance of unconscious bias - racism, even - on the part of the waitress. In the moment, my thought was that she couldn't imagine that an older black woman might want to eat in a place that is for hipsters.
But I had to unpack my own bias blindspot (this is a bias that says we're unaware of our own bias). Of course, when I thought about it, I realised that while, yes, my first reaction might have been correct, equally, I might have been completely wrong - maybe the waitress knew the woman. Maybe she'd been there the day before.
My first reaction was a kind of unconscious bias in itself; being American, I'm very sensitive to race relations, and so I am apt to see it where it may not have been. This bias is called the clustering illusion, and it simply says that we look for patterns, and then often falsely see evidence of those patterns.
Had I not questioned my own bias, I might have slipped into discrimination - in this case, against the young waitress.
If this has got you thinking about the assessments or judgements that you may have made about others over the last few days - and whether they were based on conscious thought or unconscious short-cuts - you might like to join me to discover more.
Want to learn more? I have a one-hour mini master-class on unconscious bias - register here.
I'd appreciate it if you'd share this with anyone you think might be interested in this topic.