What Is Unconscious Bias?
If you’re like me (in other words, breathing), you can probably list many human qualities, and possibly some groups of people, that you think are inferior.
That’s because — whether bias is hard-wired in us, or a habit from our tribal past — we human beings are really good at noticing how other people are different from us, and then explaining how that difference makes us better than them.
- When these beliefs are consciously held, we call them prejudice.
- When they’re unawarely held, they’re called implicit or unconscious bias.
What else are human beings good at?
Absorbing the biased things that others believe, and converting that external prejudice into unconscious bias toward ourselves.
How Does Unconscious Bias Manifest?
There are thousands of ways, but here’s one example:
The 1958 musical South Pacific features this Oscar Hammerstein lyric from the song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”:
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made
And people whose skin is a different shade.
You’ve got to be carefully taught.”
It’s true that bias against other people does have to be carefully taught. (Thank you, Oscar Hammerstein!)
For example, at age 3, my daughter couldn’t remember which of her grandparents were Daddy’s parents, and which were Mommy’s. She didn’t see us as being “color-coded.”
But notice that, even while the character who sings Hammerstein’s lyrics is arguing against prejudice, he’s also reinforcing it by suggesting that his eyes are the standard, and the eyes of South Pacific Islanders are… well, odd.
That’s how hard this stuff is to untangle.
Why Does This Matter for Public Speaking?
It matters because unconscious bias can shape your attitude toward your audience and yourself in ways that can undermine your credibility, weaken your message, and set you up to fail.
From the immigrants who speak perfect English but are afraid they “sound funny”… to the working-class college grads who don’t think they know “the right” words… to the women who think they aren’t smart enough, strong enough, something enough to deserve to be heard, almost all of us feel the sting — the undermining potential — of unconscious bias against ourselves.
But fortunately, when that bias is revealed, we’re in a better position to change it.
Revealing What’s Unconscious: There’s an App for That!
OK, it’s not really an app, it’s an on-line experience that takes less than 10 minutes and can surface attitudes that are buried deep in your brain.
It’s called Project Implicit (for “implicit bias”), and here’s how to access it:
- Go to Project Implicit (you may need to register, but that’s quick).
- At the top of the page, click I wish to proceed. (If you don’t see that choice, click Take a Test, in the top menu).
- Scroll down and choose the IAT (Implicit Attitude Test) that interests you — you can choose from topics like Asian IAT, Skin-Tone IAT, Weight IAT, Gender-Career IAT, and more.
- Follow the instructions to take the test.
At the end of the test, you’ll be told how your level of unconscious bias stacks up against that of the hundreds of thousands of other people who’ve taken that particular IAT.
For example, when I took the Gender-Career IAT (currently next to last on the list), I learned that I have a moderate level of bias against women and careers.
Actually, I knew that from taking the test, because when I was asked to match a female name (“Judy”) with a career-related word (“office”) I could feel how much harder my brain had to work than when I was matching men’s names (“Jim”) with career-related words.
I wasn’t too surprised by this, since I grew up in a white, middle-class 1950s suburb where almost no women “worked” (managing households and raising kids apparently didn’t count as work).
But recognizing the bias helps me take myself more seriously as a professional — and it let’s me help my female clients do the same.
Unconscious Bias is Not the Whole Story, But It’s a Part of the Story that We Need to Tell!
There are, of course, endless cultural and personal reasons why each of us — male and female — struggles in the specific ways we do. Unconscious bias toward ourselves is never a complete explanation, but for many of us, it’s a contributing factor.
That alone makes it well worth exploring.
And — as an added bonus — challenging the unconscious biases that so many of us hold towards ourselves can also help us clear out some of the unconscious biases we all hold toward others.