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What Causes Biases and How to Recognize Yours

Danielle Dahl, Lead Contributor

Every single one of us is biased about something—even if we don’t recognize what causes our biases. Where do they come from, and how can you spot them? Biases are actually a cognitive process because our brains are busy.

The human brain is constantly processing through all of our learned and innate experiences. It pulls all of that information together quickly—stereotyping things so we can make good decisions. We do this without meaning to, which is why it is important to understand how biases are formed.

Typically, being biased sounds like a bad thing. However, sometimes it is, and sometimes it is just the way our brain processes things. Psychological scientists define ‘bias’ as the tendency to respond one way or another when facing a decision about a life choice.

Understanding this concept helps us recognize and address our biases—because they can often lead us to make worse decisions, not better ones.

“It’s human nature to make the complex manageable and determine things that fit your conclusions. That’s bias.” — Richard Burr

What causes biases?

There are several things that play a part in forming our biases. They are:

  • Our personal experiences and our upbringing
  • The experiences of people like our parents and friends
  • The cultures we live in and social norms
  • The information we process (media)
  • Our educational system and its values

Think about your personal experiences, upbringing, and the people you spend the most time with. Let’s say you grew up in an area where women primarily stayed home and took care of the house. All the women you know live this way and seem happy.

This doesn’t mean that if someone asked you if women should be barred from certain positions, you would say yes. You can believe that women should be in power, or receive whatever level of education they want on a conscious level.

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However, if you accepted a new job and your boss was a woman, would you feel uncomfortable? Would you want to be in a relationship with a woman who had professional goals? Consciously, you might argue those things wouldn’t matter to you, but dig a little deeper and examine how you have felt around professional women.

Cultural and societal norms influence how we view gender, race, and many other important factors. Where we live also influences the type of media we consume. This isn’t just news channels, but the books we read and the movies we watch. It also influences how we are educated.

Each of these experiences over the course of our lives helps to create biases. Of course, since they are things we have viewed, believed, or accepted that we have experienced over a lifetime, they can be challenging for us to recognize.

“I think unconscious bias is one of the hardest things to get at.” Ruth Bader Ginsburg

How to recognize and handle your individual bias

One of the first things you can do to recognize your biases is to take the Implicit Association Test—or IAT. The Implicit Association Test was developed by Harvard in 1998. The test looks at how strongly a person reacts to concepts and different groups of people.

Being aware of your implicit biases is the first step to handling your biases. These are biases you didn’t intend, but they do impact how you live your life. Every decision that you make (whether they are good or bad) is influenced by these biases.

Looking back to the example of the female boss can offer a glimpse of this scenario. Let’s say you were offered a position at that company. The pay is better, and it would be a wonderful opportunity for you. However, you ultimately decide not to take it because you don’t feel like it is a good fit.

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You might not articulate that it was because the idea of working for a woman affected you in any way. Your conscious self might have a list of other reasons (and they all could also be valid). However, being aware of your implicit bias could help you make a different decision.

“Fortunately for serious minds, a bias recognized is a bias sterilized.” — Benjamin Haydon

How to change your implicit biases

Now that you know these biases exist, it is possible to change them. It might feel you have been operating as a puppet on a string to your subconscious, but there is hope. Ultimately, implicit bias is a behavior.

It is a behavior that has been systematically used by your brain to make decisions for a long time—but it doesn’t mean you have to stick with it. You can change this behavior just like you would with any other.

You have to be aware of the behavior in question. Then introduce yourself to new pieces of information. In the case of female leadership, you could read books from some of the best female business leaders. You could also meet and interact socially with women in professional roles.

Basically, leave your bubble and explore something new. This can work with whatever implicit biases you discover. If you are in a position of power and recognize that you have a bias toward overweight people, try conducting phone interviews first. You can deliberately blind yourself to certain facts and deny your brain the chance to stereotype someone.

“All of us show bias when it comes to what information we take in. We typically focus on anything that agrees with the outcome we want.” — Noreena Hertz

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Discovering your implicit biases is worth it

Realizing that you might have been making decisions based on a bias you weren’t aware of can be life-changing. It will encourage you to expand your mind and increase your knowledge. You will experience things you might not have had you not noticed this. You will begin to make different types of decisions.

Look back at some decisions you have made that weren’t so good. Was it because of your bias? What do you think you would have done if you had been aware of this bias? You might have chosen differently, or you might have done the same thing.

You can’t really spend too much time in the ‘what if’ game, but you can take a more active role in your decision-making process. Be the puppeteer of your own life, not some ideas you weren’t really aware of!

Keep in mind that biases do not mean you are racist, sexist, agist, or any other ‘ist.’ It is the behavior and actions that follow that determine if you have a prejudice. Often, our implicit biases are in direct opposition to what we consciously proclaim to believe.

“Implicit bias—our subconscious associations of race—permeates everything that we do. And we must pursue systemic accountability to fix it.” — Opal Tometi

Let us know what you thought of the IAT if you took it. If you haven’t taken it yet, then you really should. There are about You can share your thoughts with us in the comment section below.

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