The Scientific Explanation of Why Everyone is Biased in Hiring

Anete Vesere

Content Marketer

I have a confession to make. I am biased. Actually, so are you.

Every day we subconsciously make a lot of decisions and probably your most recent one was whether to read this article or not. Glad you’re here though. 🙂

We make decisions so frequently and most of the time we don’t even realize we are doing it, some sources say that we make up to 35,000 micro-decisions every day.

In the end, our cognitive biases arising from our social environment shape the way we think and process this information overload.  Cognitive bias happens whether we want it to or not, it’s unconscious.

 As much as these cognitive biases help us throughout our daily lives, they also do have downsides. Especially when it comes to hiring-related decisions…

How our brain creates biases

You just spent about 50 seconds reading the first paragraphs of this blog. In theory, you already made 25 micro-decisions since choosing to even read this post…

Chances are, you don’t recall making any decisions at all during. But didn’t you make a quick judgement whether or not to carry on reading after the first sentence? By the way, thanks for sticking with it 😉 . Did you decide to ignore a notification, or take a sip of coffee, reposition yourself, scratch your arm, or suppress a yawn? These are those micro-decisions I was talking about at the very beginning of the post, the ones you make unconsciously and without being aware of it. 

That’s how our mind works.

Unconscious vs Conscious Mind

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. 

The way our brain works can be separated into conscious and unconscious processes:

  • The Conscious part of our mind is where things like decision-making, problem-solving, or deliberate thinking happens. These processes are rather slow in the way they occur and have limited processing power. For example, if you feel hungry at some point in the day you’ll probably eat some food (McLeod, 2015). Makes sense, right? And that’s your conscious mind acting.
  • The Unconscious part of our mind is very fast and runs effortlessly in the background, processing incoming information and integrating it with our existing knowledge and memories (Dijksterhuis and Bargh, 2001). It stores beliefs, feelings, thoughts, urges, or memories that are outside of our awareness (Cherry, 2020). The unconscious mind creates groups and categories to connect things that it often experiences together to help process incoming information faster. 

 

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. 

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 in 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). 

How do Unconscious Biases Arise?

Our brain needs to process millions of pieces of information each second and make thousands of decisions each day. In order to survive information overload, our brain uses cognitive shortcuts, where the brain unconsciously interprets information and attaches meaning to this.

However, these shortcuts are also where unconscious biases can come into play. 

The unconscious mind creates groups and categories to connect things that it often experiences together to help process incoming information faster. Let’s test this!

Imagine a nurse. Is it a woman?

Imagine a CEO. Is it a man?

If you often see female nurses or male CEOs, you may unconsciously draw a connection between gender and the occupation to speed up and simplify future interpretations and decisions that have to be made about either of these. 

The way these connections, and therefore rules for shortcuts, are generated is heavily influenced by our experiences and what we are exposed to in our upbringing, surroundings, or the media for example. 

Keen to learn more about unconscious bias?

Once these connections are formed, it is difficult to break them again, especially since all of this happens unconsciously. In the workplace, unconscious biases can have the most detrimental consequences on organisational cultures and a huge impact on decision-making processes. 

Ultimately, making you miss out on talent. Here’s how.

The Consequences of Unconscious Bias in Hiring

79%* of HR professionals agree that unconscious bias exist when it comes to recruitment-related decisions…

Let’s face it, human-based screening is extremely biased.  The dangers of cognitive biases dictate how we perceive others and leave a significant impact on our final hiring decisions: from recruitment, job-description posting, hiring, project assignment, opportunities, day-to-day treatment, evaluation, promotions, compensation, and retention.

  • High mishire rate. Once you begin relying on gut feeling when making hiring decisions, there is a 50% hiring failure rate. That means ONE OUT OF TWO hires you make is a mishire. 
  • A shrinking and less diverse talent pool. Diverse companies are proven to attract 73.2% more top talent than non-diverse companies. 
  • Lead to a homogenous culture & lack of diversity within teams. Did you know that 2 out of 3 job candidates actively seek companies that have diverse workforces? 
  • Increased turnover. Ultimately not only costing you time but also money – up to double the employee’s annual salary
  • Negative employer brand reputation. Biased hiring decisions can damage your brand’s reputation.
  • Potential legal consequences. Some biases aren’t only frowned upon; they’re illegal. Laws vary depending on location, but large countries such as the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom have all taken steps to protect job applicants from employment discrimination.


These are all things that you should want to avoid by all means. But what can you do to avoid this? 

Stop shaming and blaming, instead begin acting on it

Here, at Equalture, we have made it our mission to help companies hire people based on what’s actually predictive of future job performance: cognitive skills, behaviour, and personality. Without a doubt everyone of our team is super passionate about what we do and I absolutely stand by our product as well. All though I might be a bit biased there 😉

Our library of scientifically-validated gamified assessments, which candidates are asked to complete right at the start of the hiring process (this takes around 15 minutes) help you to hire based on what matters rather than your gut feeling and first impressions.

Here’s how:

  1. Set the right hiring criteria.
  2. Help you gather valuable insights about candidates before the interview process. 
  3. Provide you with interview guides for the interviews. 

Try a game!

You can’t prevent being biased.  But you can take action to limit acting on it. Objective hiring isn’t something you will achieve overnight. It’s a process of trial and error, and that’s more than fine. 

I hope you will be joining us on our mission to shape the world of unbiased hiring. Don’t let cognitive biases get in the way of you hiring great talent! 😉

Cheers, Anete.

References

Cherry, K. (2020, December 9). The Preconscious, Conscious, and Unconscious Minds. Verywell Mind. Retrieved January 25, 2022, from https://www.verywellmind.com/the-conscious-and-unconscious-mind-2795946 

Cherry, K. (2020, July 19). What Is the Unconscious?. Verywell Mind. Retrieved January 25, 2022, from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-the-unconscious-2796004 

Dijksterhuis, A., & Bargh, J. A. (2001). The perception–behavior expressway: Automatic effects of social perception on social behavior. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology, Vol. 33, pp. 1–40). Academic Press. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0065-2601(01)80003-4 

McCormick, H. (2015). The real effects of unconscious bias in the workplace. UNC Executive Development, Kenan-Flagler Business School. DIRECCIÓN.

McLeod, S. A. (2015). Freud and the unconscious mind. Unconscious Mind | Simply Psychology. Retrieved January 25, 2022, from http://www.simplypsychology.org/unconscious-mind.html  

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