A scientific deep-dive into our Unconscious biases

A scientific deep-dive into our Unconscious biases

Unconscious bias. We’ve all heard something about unconscious biases and the impact they can leave on our decision-making processes, especially in recruitment. However, very few of us actually know where and how these mysterious, invisible biases arise. 

So, without further ado – let’s take a little deep dive into this topic and find out!

A little story about our Mind: The tip of the Iceberg

Since the early 1900s, psychologists have been attempting to understand how people think and behave. Perhaps one of the most influential ones amongst them, Sigmund Freud played an important role in popularising the idea of an unconscious mind and used it widely in his psychoanalytic therapy. This is where the iceberg metaphor was introduced to explain how our mind drives our behaviours. 

This image shows the Iceberg metaphor that depicts how our mind is divided into three main parts - conscious, preconscious and unconscious mind.

But what does this metaphor mean and how is it related to how our minds function?

The tip of the iceberg is our conscious mind, the intermediate part of the iceberg (which is still slightly visible) is the preconscious mind and the huge part underneath the water is our unconscious mind. Let me explain to you one by one what each of these iceberg parts have to do with our mind.

  • Conscious mind refers to our perceptions, thoughts, sensations and other things that are within our awareness at any given moment. For example, if you feel hungry at some point in a day you’ll probably eat some food (McLeod, 2015). Makes sense, right? And that’s your conscious mind acting.
  • The preconscious mind describes those thoughts or memories that are ready to be extracted and brought into awareness when you need them. For instance, at the moment you are asked to fill in your phone number on an application form, your memory of your number is brought to your mind. However, your phone number is probably not something that is on your mind all the time.
  • The unconscious mind is the sector that stores beliefs, feelings, thoughts, urges, or memories that are outside of our awareness (Cherry, 2020). For example, you may have had negative associations with clowns during your childhood, causing your brain to suppress these unpleasant memories into the unconscious. This could lead to avoidance behaviours towards clowns in adulthood without any conscious reasoning for it. So, if someone invites you to a circus show – you are likely to avoid going. (Because you might encounter some clowns)

Unconscious vs Conscious mind

As you can already imagine, the Iceberg metaphor has received a lot of criticism since the 1900s. I mean it’s already been more than a hundred years by now since. Given that initially Freud’s theory was based solely on case studies and observations, it lacked a solid scientific background (Cherry, 2020). 

However, the concept of the unconscious has not been entirely abandoned by cognitive psychology when trying  to understand human behaviour (McLeod, 2015). Kahneman (2003), for example, explained decision making processes through a dual process system (also, Vrabel & Zeigler-Hill, 2017). A dual process system draws a distinction between System 1 and System 2 when it comes to our decision making processes:

  • System 1 (Unconscious mind) is an intuitive and automatic system that precedes deliberate thinking. It is fast, effortless and acts as immediate responses when we are in unfamiliar situations and is crucial for our survival  (Dijksterhuis and Bargh, 2001). 
  • System 2 (Conscious mind) is a reasoning system that involves controlled processes. It is slow, rule-governed and allows us to execute complex tasks (e.g., active learning, reasoning and awareness)

Without a doubt, many studies have been conducted in order to understand how our brain works. With the advance of technology, research has been taken up to the next level in hopes to improve our knowledge of how the brain functions. 

Now, let’s take a closer look at information processing and how unconscious biases occur within this system. 

Information processing at a glance

Everyday, through our senses we collect massive amounts of information from the outside world and our brains are responsible to make sense out of them. Unconscious thought theory (UTT; Dijksterhuis & Nordgren, 2006) described the human mind through cognitive capacity

The conscious mind is constrained with limited capacity which will only allow us to do a certain amount of tasks at one time. For instance, research has suggested that humans can only temporarily remember an average of 7 items or 2 seconds worth of speech without recalling them after seeing or hearing them. (Miller, 1956; Wasserman & Wasserman, 2016). 

The unconscious mind, however, is not constrained and possesses much higher capacity. This means that we are able to process large amounts of information even without our awareness. That’s why the unconscious mind can help us make more efficient and sensible decisions than the conscious mind.  

A more specific term that is important for the unconscious mind in cognitive psychology would be automaticity. It is based on the idea that the stimuli we process everyday are way beyond what our conscious mind can handle, so there must be some sort of automated process to  help us cope with it (Dijksterhuis, 2010). And this process happens automatically without us even being aware of it . 

Take the Cocktail-party effect as an example (Moray, 1959): Imagine being at a party, talking to your friends. Suddenly, people from another conversation group mention your name. You might turn around and start searching for the voice. There is a good chance you did not process a word of what they were saying before your name was brought up, but still your brain alerted you once it was. That is because when there is something relevant that is worth our limited cognitive capacity, the unconscious monitoring system picks it up and introduces it into our consciousness, waiting for our attention to deliberately process it. 

The pitfall of automated processing systems

Our unconscious system is without a doubt beneficial in dealing with enormous amounts of stimuli we are exposed to every single day. The automated, unconscious mind receives, categorises, labels, arranges and stores this information in our brains. Day by day, these cumulative, labelled stimuli unknowingly provide us with guidance of what to do if something happens, known as the priming effect (The decision lab, 2021). 

The stimuli processed by our unconscious mind form our very own “habit” (automatic) systems for dealing with daily routine and problem-solving systems for unfamiliar or novel circumstances (Wasserman & Wasserman, 2016). This system affects not only our behaviours, but acts across other psychological systems, such as perceptions, motivations, thoughts, evaluations, inferences, and more

A simple example of this is that we would more easily recognize the word “nurse” over “cat” after being presented with the word “doctor” before. That is because our brain associates those two occupations without our awareness based on previous experiences and memories processed in the unconscious mind. 

However, while our brain is labelling these stimuli independently, there is no clear rule of what is “good” or “bad”. It all relies on our social environment. Along with the development of our social identity (e.g, education, religions, families, class), we automatically associate certain information to certain assumptions according to our unique experiences (Clar et al., 2021). With different exposure to various cultures and historical experiences, the stimuli we receive in our brain form different labels, leading to different assumptions towards one similar issue. 

Those tiny differences in every single point within our life can cause a huge diversity in our beliefs, values, feelings and more, along the way. 

This is where unconscious biases can occur and cause serious consequences when we only rely on those assumptions and stereotypes to make assumptions about other people and associate them with negative or positive attributes (Allen & Garg, 2016).

So, what are unconscious biases?

Unconscious biases refer to unintentionally, unknowingly drawing assumptions about individuals or groups and generating impressions about them using those assumptions. They will especially be triggered when having to make decisions in a high-pressure environment or a short amount of time. If we have a negative impression of one individual, this impression may be diffused to the entire social group to which this individual belongs to (McCormick, 2015). 

After exposure to stimuli we identify as negative, a schema (a framework that helps organise and interpret information; Cherry, 2019) in accordance with those negative beliefs may be activated during times we are not attending to our (conscious) thoughts and actions (Allen & Garg, 2016). 

The thing is that unconscious biases are a critical issue that needs to be addressed since humans tend to believe they can (to a certain extent) control how they think and behave. However, the majority of our mind and behaviour is dominated by unconscious and automated systems outside of our attention. The values and intentions to act in the unconscious are not always aligned with those in the conscious mind. And that’s also why the impact the unconscious mind can have on recruitment process can often lead to lots of (unintentional) discrimination and missing out on great talent…

How unconscious biases affect recruitment

In the workplace, unconscious biases can have the most detrimental consequences on organisational cultures and a huge impact on decision-making processes. From simple things such as even how employees communicate to colleagues, to complex stuff such as how to shape company culture, these choices are affected by unconscious biases that exist in all of us. Yes, you read that right.

Unconscious biases (already) occur at the beginning of the recruitment process. With confidence I can say that the recruitment processes which only involve human judgement largely consist of unconscious biases. 

For example, CVs that contain names can trigger unconscious biases, which can influence the hiring managers’ decision. Moss-Racusin and colleagues (2012) showed that candidates named “John” received more support and starting salary, compared to candidates named “Jennifer” within the faculty of biological and physical sciences. The name “Jennifer” was associated with less competence and motivation even when providing the same background. 

High volumes of information about past experience, education background or volunteer experience on sugar-coated resumes are too much for our conscious cognitive capacity to process. That’s why, as long as an unconscious process is involved, there is a high possibility that biases occur at the same time.

Another method that dominates the recruitment process is the unstructured interview which takes place without initially standardising the interview questions. Most of the time interviewers will go with their gut feeling and ask spontaneous questions. These questions are likely to have little relevance to the job. They can take forms like: “If you were a superhero, what would your superpower be?”. 

This question serves as a perfect example of those triggering unconscious biases. If somebody were to answer the question with the character we like the most, we will probably favour this candidate naturally because of the similarity attraction paradigm (people like and are attracted to others who are similar to themselves; Consul et al., 2021). The information we gather through those irrelevant questions can create “noise” in our decision making process, eventually leading to undesired outcomes. Dana and colleagues (2013) explained this as a diluted effect, which indicates that irrelevant information reduces reliance on good information.

Unconscious biases also affect different levels of decision making in the workplace, such as performance review, promotion, evaluation, retention, and more. That’s exactly why it is important to be aware and have strategies in place to tackle these unconscious biases. 

To conclude

Our brains operate on both conscious and unconscious levels to help us survive and deal with the mass of sensory information we have to process every day. Although the unconscious system is beneficial for effective decision making, you should be cautious about what the implications this automated system can have when there is no control over the type and relevance of information you receive about someone…

Cheers, Jiaying


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