Howard Ross, author of Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgment in Our Daily Lives, defines unconscious bias as “mental associations without awareness, intention, or control.” Our unconscious biases can, and regularly do, conflict with our conscious opinions. Ross adds that “These (unconscious biases) often conflict with our conscious attitudes, behaviors, and intentions.”
On the other hand, conscious bias or prejudice refers to attitudes and beliefs that we have of people or groups of people, at a more aware, conscious level.
So while prejudice is largely under a person’s conscious control, unconscious, or hidden bias is not. We are not aware of our own hidden bias. Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald, authors of Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, tell us that hidden biases are lightening-quick decisions drawn from one’s assumptions and experiences that may also be based on misguided generalisations. Therefore, it is essential to understand that while unconscious bias is hidden, it nevertheless exists and may go against what you believe consciously.
How then, do we address the matter of hidden bias? The first step is to accept that we all have unconscious bias. As with any change in behaviour, self-awareness and acceptance is critical. You can be aware of your own biases by simply paying very close attention to the feelings that come up for you in relation to people that you interact with. Change can only come from a place of awareness, so it is important that you are honest with yourself. This takes courage. The motivation can come from knowing that sometimes you may have a positive impact on another person’s life. The more self-aware you are about the types of hidden biases you may hold, the more you will begin to overcome them.
Once we have identified our biases, we must be willing to confront these patterns in our interpersonal relations. This is where emotional intelligence can help. “Emotional intelligence” is a term coined by researchers Peter Salovey and John Mayer, popularised by Dan Goleman, and refers to the ability to recognise, understand, and manage our own emotions as well as those of others.
One best practice that uses emotional intelligence comes from Cook Ross, a firm specialising in helping organisations address unconscious bias. They suggest taking a P-A-U-S-E to check one’s reaction as follows:
- Pay attention to what is happening beneath the surface.
- Acknowledge your own reactions, interpretations, and judgments.
- Understand the other possible reactions, interpretations, and judgments.
- Search for the most empowering, productive way forward.
- Execute on the plan.
Taking a break during a conflict to examine things from another perspective can salvage the situation.
Bill Ury, co-author of Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, refers to the mental activity of “going to the balcony.” This is taking time to step away, either by going for a walk or anything that provides you with the time and space to mentally remove yourself from the conflict and then imagine looking down from a balcony at what’s happening in the dispute. From the balcony, you see different perspectives and alternatives. You can see the other’s point of view, can more easily put yourself in their shoes, and can empathise. The capacity for empathy is a powerful skill that can help us all deal with bias — whether we are building a bridge for reconciliation, resolving a dispute, or creating a foundation for a renewed relationship.
Today we live in an extremely diverse world; a world that consists of different cultures, religious beliefs, ethnicities, and thought. In explaining his thoughts on tolerance and pluralism during his Samuel L. and Elizabeth Jodidi Lecture at Harvard University in 2015, Mawlana Hazar Imam spoke of the notion of a “cosmopolitan ethic” and “cosmopolitan society.”
“A pluralist, cosmopolitan society is a society which not only accepts difference, but actively seeks to understand it and to learn from it. In this perspective, diversity is not a burden to be endured, but an opportunity to be welcomed,” Hazar Imam said. He added that a “cosmopolitan society regards the distinctive threads of our particular identities as elements that bring beauty to the larger social fabric. A cosmopolitan ethic accepts our ultimate moral responsibility to the whole of humanity, rather than absolutising a presumably exceptional part.”
Let us continue to use our diversity as strength and live the beauty of pluralism by better understanding ourselves and each other.
To explore your own hidden bias, try the Implicit Association Test by the authors of Blindspot, at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/.
Sheila Aly is a Certified Mediation Trainer for the Aga Khan International Conciliation and Arbitration Board. She is also a Barrister with a legal career spanning over 13 years, along with serving as a coach and mentor in the United Kingdom.
Aneez Khanani is a Certified Mediation Trainer for the Aga Khan International Conciliation and Arbitration Board. She is also a mediator and communications strategist with over 20 years of providing advice and counsel to leaders and executive decision-makers in corporate and government organisations in Canada.