What Is Unconscious Bias and How Do You Avoid It?
By: Julie Hand
June 7, 2018
As Moira Forbes rose through the ranks of her family’s global publishing brand Forbes Media, she quickly realized she was up against a hidden part of herself. Like everyone, this superwoman had her own blind spots (aka unconscious biases), that she had to face and overcome on the road to success.
In a recent Bulletproof Radio (iTunes) podcast episode, Forbes explains how unconscious biases — automatic assumptions you make about certain groups of people — can determine how you approach a situation.
The concept recently made headlines when coffee giant Starbucks closed all its stores one afternoon last month to give its employees unconscious bias training. The move was in response to an incident at a Philadelphia Starbucks in April, when two African American men were arrested after asking to use the restroom.
Read on to find out how Forbes identifies and corrects her own unconscious biases, both in the workplace and at home, and tips on how you can do the same.
What is an unconscious bias?
Unconscious biases are learned and deeply ingrained stereotypes about other people based on traits like gender, social class, race, and height and weight. These hidden judgments can extend to a person’s educational level, disability, sexuality, accent, social status, and job title.
While unconscious biases are automatic and unintentional, they can influence behavior. When your unconscious biases go unchecked, they can cause you to make poor decisions in your personal and professional lives.
How do unconscious biases affect everyday life?
Unconscious biases are everywhere. They’re at the doctor’s office — physicians show racial bias when making decisions about patient care; in the classroom, teachers treat students differently depending on their skin color; judges and jurors struggle with unconscious bias in the courtroom; and in politics, biases influence who people vote for and why. Looks count too. One study found the taller you are, the better you fare in the workplace, especially as a CEO.
Why do you have unconscious biases?
The idea is unsettling — that unconscious biases could affect your decision-making, or that you might be negatively impacted by someone else’s blind spots. But unconscious biases developed in your psyche for a reason.
According to Harvard research, humans classify people by age, weight, skin color, and gender as a way to process information about them. The brain hits decision fatigue after an onslaught of numerous daily decisions. Unconscious biases free up mental space, allowing you to focus on other tasks.
But classifying people like this becomes a problem when it causes you to make assumptions about others that may not be accurate. For instance, you might call an ambitious female employee “aggressive,” or choose not to invite your child’s friend to a birthday party because he is “different.”
How to detect and avoid unconscious biases
There are ways to identify and correct your unconscious biases. Forbes explains how she uncovers her own blind spots, and how you can too:
Learn to listen
“The moment I feel like I’m about to talk and weigh in [on a conversation], I actively take a step back and let everyone [else] bring their thoughts to the table first,” says Forbes. “This keeps me grounded and also keeps me focused on convening all the different viewpoints that we bring together.”
Give active listening a try. While listening to someone, ask open-ended questions, tune in to their feelings, and summarize what they’ve said. 
Take a pause
“For me, I always find pauses,” says Forbes. “If I feel like I’m getting swept up in the moment and it’s just too much, I literally have to hit reset and pause.” At work, she tries to take moments throughout the day to clear her head, even if that just means walking out of the room, or doing a quick three-minute meditation.
“With my kids sometimes it’s running into the kitchen, just trying to get away,” she adds. “But when you take that moment to pause and recharge, it levels you and it allows you to think versus always reacting on emotion.”
Make sure to take short breaks and pause throughout the day, especially when you feel overwhelmed. Often a quick walk to the water cooler or a chat with a co-worker is enough. Or you can try Forbes’ strategy and do a speedy meditation (you can find good ones here and here).
Not only is meditation a great calming tool, it can also boost your concentration and improve your attention to detail when you’re stressed. This helps you to approach a situation with a clearer mind.
Surround yourself with people who are different from you
“The more you surround yourself and push yourself to have people who are so fundamentally different from you, [the more you understand your blind spots],” says Forbes. “I always want people to come at a situation and bring very, very different vantage points because then it starts to test me in terms of how I react and how I think.”
Being around people from different backgrounds keeps you on your toes — it challenges your belief systems and pushes you to see things from another perspective. You’ll start to appreciate different viewpoints, become more accepting, and begin to respect people more for who they are, rather than for how you think they should be or act.
Try this: Spend time with someone who holds a different political viewpoint than you. Rather than challenging them as soon as they start to speak, try listening to what they have to say, and then pause. See if any thoughts or insights come to mind that tell you about your own personal biases. The more you practice stepping back before reacting, the more equipped you’ll be to root out those blind spots and consciously make better decisions.
Ready to uncover any hidden biases you may have? Take this test to get started.
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