Unconscious bias is an attitude, assumption, or belief that implicitly influences our thinking. We have these biases without actively thinking about them or even knowing we hold them.
They are the opposite of conscious biases, which are biases we know we hold.
Common examples of unconscious biases that humans hold include gender, race, and age-based biases. They might influence how we speak to people or even impact employment opportunities for the victims of these biases.
Definition of Unconscious Bias
Our failure to be rational and logical is a result of unconscious biases. The term unconscious is used because these biases happen without us even knowing about them. They are automatic and occur in a split second.
Generally speaking, they are based on stereotypes that are well-ingrained in our particular culture. They affect how we evaluate others and act towards them. Although unconscious biases are usually considered automatic, they still have very real consequences.
The good news is that the first step to overcoming these biases is for people to become aware that they exist. Overcoming unconscious bias starts with increasing awareness.
Examples of Unconscious Bias
1. Youth Equals Strength
Ask any young person and they will surely tell you that older people tend to be not very strong.
Just go to any gym and you can see young men and women lifting numerous sets of very heavy weight. So, it seems logical to conclude that the younger you are, the stronger you are.
This conclusion is understandable, but it is not always the case. The problem arises when this conclusion about age and strength clouds the judgement of an HR manager. Even if a job is not very physically demanding in terms of strength, there may be faulty assumptions about endurance as well.
Each person is supposed to be evaluated as an individual. As soon as we lump people into categories, in this case based on age, we exhibit a bias.
2. Young People are Good with Technology
Another bias regarding age has to do with technology. A lot of youth will just assume that older people, like their parents for example, have no clue as to how to use the latest technology.
This is actually a common area of complaint among older generations that are quite capable of downloading and utilizing that latest software and gadgetry.
In fact, technology just gets easier to use, not harder. For example, take a look at video editing software from 30 years ago. You will be amazed at how bulky the equipment is and how long it takes to implement simple production features.
With the software available today, it’s just a matter of a few clicks on your laptop and all of a sudden, you have split-screens and swooping text anywhere you want.
It is an unconscious bias to just assume that older individuals are less capable with technology.
3. Biases Against Powerful Women
There are many unconscious biases related to gender. Of course, this in large part depends on the society being examined, but generally speaking these biases are quite pervasive.
For example, when it comes to leadership style, being hard-driving and demanding have often been considered the hallmarks of excellent leadership. The infamous Steve Jobs was considered by everyone around to be a very direct and unrelenting perfectionist.
Unfortunately, when a female exhibits those exact same attributes, they don’t quite get the same credit. They can be defined as “difficult” or another term that starts with the letter “B”.
Both males and females can possess nearly identical leadership styles, but the adjectives for males will be much different than the ones used for females. This is an example of an unconscious gender bias that has been holding the careers of women down for decades.
4. Thinking Boys are Disruptive
Gender bias is a double-edged sword. A few decades ago, tremendous concern emerged because few women became scientists.
Many scholars pointed to the K-12 school system as the culprit. It was concluded that schools were failing little girls.
Science classrooms were diagnosed as too competitive and scientific analysis was simply a male-oriented way of thinking that is unnatural for females.
Now however, scholars are very concerned that boys are being left out. In fact, boys are often branded as “disruptive” because they can’t sit still in their chairs and listen quietly, as girls stereotypically do.
The feminization of the classroom, albeit well-intentioned, has created equal problems for boys. It is a quite complex issue and if you would like a brief synopsis of the matter, check out this video at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OFpYj0E-yb4
5. Bias Toward Minorities in Healthcare Practices
The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality produces a document titled National Healthcare Quality and Disparities Report. The yearly report examines the quality of care across numerous demographics to assess equality of treatment.
The term “health care disparities” refers to the unbalanced outcomes that exist between vulnerable patient groups and majority groups. The inequality in treatment occurs in numerous aspects of patient care, including healthcare professionals spending less time with patients and discharging patients with insufficient follow-up.
In this example, an unconscious bias can have severe consequences. Less time with patients may lead to a misdiagnosis. Discharging a patient early may also produce ill-effects.
The good news is that the health care industry has undertaken significant efforts to combat unconscious bias in both doctors and nurses. Progress is slow, but steady.
6. Name Bias in Hiring
Ethnicities and even geographic origins are associated with a specific type of culture, values, and customs.
These are also associated with names. Some names sound Italian, such as Tony, while the surname O-Reilly sounds Irish.
Unfortunately, upon hearing these names a certain set of assumptions will be activated automatically. Whatever attributes we associate with that particular ethnicity or race will filter our perceptions of the person.
When the situation involves making hiring decisions, the consequences can be real. Just looking at the name of an applicant’s resume can be the beginning of an unconscious bias clouding the judgment of an employer.
This is one reason many immigrants change the spelling of their name when they enter a new country. Likewise, parents may choose first names for their children that are in line with the majority demographic of society.
7. Affinity Bias
We tend to like others that are similar to ourselves. Sharing values or socio-political perspectives are common denominators that naturally facilitate people clustering into like-minded groups.
Unfortunately, the naturalness of this tendency has several negative results. For example, when foreign students travel abroad for university study, they will often socialize with classmates from their own country. On the one hand, this just makes sense and is perfectly understandable. Especially when being thrust into an unfamiliar culture, the comfort of people like ourselves is very appealing.
However, one of the benefits of living and studying in another culture is that we can learn from the experience. Interacting with people that are different is how we grow as individuals. It is a real shame if someone lives in another culture for 4 years and graduates being the same as when they began.
8. Racial Bias in Real Estate Appraisals
Several years ago, there was a docuseries on racial stereotypes in real estate. One of the episodes contained a segment of how unconscious bias affects minority homeowners.
Basically, the producers asked several White real estate appraisers to assess the value of the same home. Sometimes the homeowners were present and were Black, while on other occasions the homeowners were present and were White.
Logically speaking, the appraisers, who were all trained and experienced professionals, should produce very similar valuations. After all, they were all appraising the value of the same home.
As it turns out, the estimated value of the house was always higher when the homeowners were White. The average difference was quite significant, amounting to tens of thousands of dollars on a 300,000-dollar home.
This is a classic example of how an unconscious bias regarding race can affect a very important matter in our lives.
9. Weight Bias
Weight bias is when someone holds negative attitudes towards people that are connected to their weight.
It is usually referred to in the context of someone that is overweight, perhaps obese, but bias against extremely thin people may occur as well (when assuming they are ill).
It can often result in discrimination and can be found in education, employment practices, health care, the media, and even friends and family. Common manifestations of this bias include verbal harassment and physical assault.
However, there are more subtle forms of discrimination that include physical barriers in everyday life, such as classroom chairs not being large enough or medical equipment such as MRI machines that cannot fit an obese individual.
The stigma of obesity can be very powerful and those that experience this bias can internalize those attitudes to the point of severe depression.
10. Beauty Bias (Physical Features and Micro-loans)
Microfinance agencies offer small loans to individuals to start a business or home enterprise.
The people applying for the loans don’t need large sums of money, and therefore corporate banks are not suitable.
A recent study was conducted examining the loan-approval process of one large online microfinance agency. Potential borrowers upload a photo of themselves and a few paragraphs describing their project. Lenders then browse the applications and choose the projects they want to fund.
The study found that borrowers that are less overweight and light-skinned received funding quicker. The preference for borrowers with these physical characteristics is an example of how our unconscious bias can affect our decision-making.
Although most of us think of ourselves as objective and free from bias, the results of studies like this one make it clear that this is simply not the case.
11. Bias Against Minorities in the Legal System
There has been a significant amount of research on how physical attractiveness affects sentencing in the legal system.
For instance, both experimental studies with mock jurors and field research have found a clear link. Less physically attractive defendants are given harsher sentences compared to more attractive counterparts.
Social scientists conducting these studies are quick to point out that this is the result of an unconscious bias. There are many positive characteristics that are ascribed to attractive people, and these attributions may inadvertently play a role in sentencing.
The exact mechanisms that underly this bias have not been determined yet. It could be due to a kind of halo effect, or connected to how mood states affect cognitive bias. Either way, it is unfortunate that the legal system, which is supposed to be fair and just for all, is swayed by something so trivial as the attractiveness of a defendant.
Ageism occurs when people are discriminated against due to being old or young. This can be unconscious, especially when hiring people in the workforce.
For example, elderly people can find it hard to get a job because there is a societal stereotype about them being too old to work hard, or even in cognitive decline.
On the flip side, young people may find it hard to get a job because there is an unconscious assumption that they are naïve or inexperienced.
I even remember as a young person teaching at a university that the older male professors would be very condescending to me not because of my skills or rapport with students, but simply because they felt as older men they could assert power over me. They may not have consciously thought about it, but they were buying into and perpetuating an ageist social hierarchy.
13. Affect Heuristic
The affect heuristic is a mental shortcut that people take whereby they let their current emotions affect their thought processes.
For example, if you had a particularly bad day at work, you might meet a new colleague that day and have a bad first impression of them.
Unconsciously, this bad first impression – which was based on your emotions at the time of meeting – might last for months to come.
Similarly, you may fall in love with the wrong person, then in hindsight realize that you fell for them not for their personality, but simply because you met each other in a particularly happy or positive moment in your life.
14. Anchor Bias
Anchoring bias occurs when you allow the first thing you learned about something affects all subsequent thoughts about it.
This happens regularly in politics, for example, when a much-loved celebrity runs for public office. You may not objectively have particularly strong feelings for their policies, but your love of their character in a television show might influence your ongoing opinions of the person.
Thus, when political parties recruit beloved public figures to run for office, they’re intentionally playing off the unconscious bias of the public in order to obtain more votes.
15. Authority Bias
Authority bias can also be an example of an unconscious bias. It occurs when you have a proclivity to privilege or preference the opinions of authority figures.
At times authority bias is logical, such as when you listen to a doctor about health issues. But it can also be a heuristic example (mental shortcut). In these situations, it can turn into an unproductive unconscious bias.
An example of when authority bias may be bad is when you deter to an authority figure in the field of religion when building a bridge. Likely, you should be deferring to an engineer in that situation. Similarly, the patriarchy has long relied on authority bias in ways that privilege men over women, even when women are more knowledgeable on a topic.
16. Confirmation Bias
Confirmation bias occurs when you tend to preference, seek out, and have your attention drawn to information that already supports your point of view.
This bias has been heavily used by social media algorithms and news organizations such as Fox News to attract and retain niche viewer segments. Many people are not motivated or do not have the critical thinking skills to seek out information that does not support their own biases.
As a result, they unconsciously fall into groups where everyone is confirming one another’s own perspectives. This makes their perspectives seem ‘common sense’ or unquestionably truthful.
See Also: 17 Examples of Confirmation Bias
17. Conformity Bias
Conformity bias occurs when we think and act in ways that are consistent with the people around us.
This type of bias can explain why people tend to grow up to have similar views, values, and beliefs as their parents and friends. They unconsciously are led down a path where their positions are consistent with ‘community values’.
In many situations, this is good, but in other situations, it can be very dangerous. It leads to moral panic and mass hysteria about issues, especially in contexts where there is an exceptionally powerful one-sided mass media ecosystem in a society.
See also: 22 Examples of Conformity
18. Contrast Effect
The contrast effect occurs when you compare two things against one another instead of judging each on their own individual merit.
This occurs most commonly in the dating scene where a person will be comparing their current date to someone they dated a week ago. The people are completely different people and should each get their own chance at a blank slate. But unfortunately, we will always be doing some level of unconscious comparisons between our dates.
This effect may also occur in politics, such as in situations where you have to compare two candidates who are both flawed. One might look good in comparison to the other, making us strongly like them. But in the next election, we may highly dislike them purely because there is a slightly better candidate.
19. Halo Effect
The halo effect occurs when we think someone is great at multiple things because they’re good at one thing.
For example, they might be good at mathematics in school, so their teacher assumes they will be good at physical education as well. This effect can be subliminal, but often has the effect of building-up someone’s confidence so they end up saying “I’m good at anything I put my effort into!”
This effect also happens to brands, such as when a soft drink brand releases a line of chocolate cakes. Even through the brand has no history in chocolate cake production, the positive attitudes may carry over to the new line of products.
20. Horns Effect
The horns effect is the opposite of the halo effect. It refers to situations where you think someone is bad at one thing so they must be bad at everything.
This effect is common in schools where a teacher decides to label a child “naughty” or “problematic” because of their behavior one day. Suddenly, the child is consistently seen as a bad child in all situations. When this unconscious bias is established in the teacher’s mind, it’s often hard to dislodge.
Many of us have bad days. We wouldn’t want to be judged by the worst day we ever had. But that’s often what happens.
And it’s even worse when you pair the horns effect with anchoring bias. This occurs when you give a bad first impression, leading to ongoing negative unconscious bias against you from that person!
21. Hindsight Bias
Hindsight bias can also be subconscious. This occurs when you judge people harshly with the benefit of already knowing what happened!
We might look at someone who invested in bad stocks, got into a car crash, or gave the wrong answer in a gameshow, and say “what a fool!”
But we’re experiencing bias in these situations because we have much more context. Thus, we’ll look at someone and judge them far too harshly, despite the fact that they were making the best decision they possibly could in the situation.
The lesson from hindsight bias is that we need to pause and tell ourselves not to judge too harshly until we “walk a mile in their shoes”.
22. Overconfidence Bias
Overconfidence bias is a bias in which you overestimate your chances of success. Many people who are extremely confident may have unconscious overconfidence bias in themselves.
This may occur when you buy a lottery ticket, for example, when you think that the chance you’ll win is far higher than it actually is. You scratch the ticket with actual hope that you’ll win. But in reality, you’re more likely to get in a car crash on the way home than win the lottery!
And that brings us to another overconfidence bias – driving! We never worry about getting in the car to drive, and yet many people get very worried about getting in an airplane. We’re unconsciously overpredicting the danger in one situation and underpredicting it in another situation.
23. Perception Bias
Perception bias, otherwise known as stereotype bias, is a type of bias that is based on simplistic stereotypes of groups of people.
For example, you might subtly (even subconsciously) perceive all French people to be rude, all Australians to be laid-back, or all Canadians to be polite. While these cultural stereotypes might be overly simplistic, they may still cloud our initial perception of a person.
A server may be very excited when they get a Texan customer because they expect them to tip well or instantly be suspicious of a South African person because they once met someone from South Africa who they didn’t like!
24. Recency Bias
Recency bias is the tendency to privilege information that we have received recently. We may not really know we’re experiencing this bias when it’s influencing us.
One example of recency bias is when a person tends to vote in an election based upon their most recent conversation. This person may be no more convincing about who to vote for than a friend who they had a discussion a week ago. But because their comments and thoughts were most recent in the person’s mind, they preference that information.
25. Status Quo Bias
Status quo bias is a conservative proclivity to preference the status quo – or what is already happening.
It involves an implicit mistrust of change. It can help us to evade potential negative situations and preserve the things we love. But it can also be bad for us because change can be good. For example, a new job might be able to make us more friends and more money in the long run.
Status quo bias also explains why it’s harder to get elected into government than it is to be re-elected. To get elected, you have to convince people that the status quo is bad, and that they need to risk a change. By contrast, when you’re in office, you can benefit from status quo bias by warning people about the risks of change. Those people who have unconscious status quo bias will be subtly influenced by this!
26. Cultural Bias
Cultural bias refers to a person’s tendency to think that their culture is the norm, and other people’s cultures are strange, different, or even inferior.
This type of bias is common in situations such as job interviews where the interviewer has a subconscious preference for people who have high cultural capital. They may be biased against people with ‘foreign’ surnames and would prefer to ‘hire locals’.
Similarly, many of us experience cultural bias when we assume we don’t have an accent but others do. Here, we have normalized our own culture’s way of speaking so much that we see it as natural and everyone else as strange.
Both research and our everyday experience has shown that unconscious biases are alive and well. They exist in nearly every facet of our lives.
Our preference for people that are similar to us can affect who we hire or promote for a better job. Even the names of people that are associated with certain ethnicities can alter our perceptions of their characteristics and employability.
At the same time, physical attractiveness can not only affect whether we receive a micro-loan or not, but also can alter sentencing in a criminal case. In addition, people that are older are considered to be less tech-savvy and weaker than those who are younger. While females that are assertive and demanding are often labeled as difficult and bossy.
Although we all want to be objective and fair, it seems that there is no escape from unconscious biases.
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