Unconscious bias may have evolved from survival tactics, but it has resulted in horrific side effects. Time to stand up to it.
As someone with a confirmed Analytical social style, I tend to obsess over the “why” and “how” – through this lens I became interested in the role unconscious bias plays in perpetuating institutionalized group-think, a precursor to systemic discrimination. 
Why are tall people more likely to be perceived as competent and powerful?”[1]
Why are men more likely to be appointed to CEO positions of Fortune 500 companies?[2]
Why do we associate poverty with cities and urban centers, when the opposite is true?[3]
Why are blue-eyed children more likely to be perceived as “sweet and kind?[4]
The answers to these questions all point to a single culprit: implicit bias.
Implicit biases are the aspects of our minds which encode and surface stereotypes or assumptions about different groups or scenarios. They trigger quickly and are often labeled as “unconscious” bias because they simply seem to fire without any active thought.
At first glance, one might assume that these biases are generally related to race, gender identity and/or expression, age and whatnot – but this only begins to scratch the surface. Marital/parental status, political affiliation, where someone attended university, where someone resides, their accent – any of these characteristics can trigger an unconscious bias reaction. At best, these preconceived notions skew perceptions and our internal reactions, and at worst, they create systemic oppression. 
So, why do we have them?
Several psychologists and neuroscientists have traced unconscious bias to a human trait related to threat assessment and survival[5]. Early humans who were able to identify and remember what constituted a threat were more likely to survive. By recognizing and recalling danger, we were able to avoid it. Over time, we evolved to make decisions about what was and wasn’t a threat very quickly. In fact, the faster we could perceive threat, the better.
It’s probable that as the world became more complex and the amount of information to which we were exposed increased, this threat assessment trait evolved. We grouped “threats” and created mental shortcuts to filter increasing amounts of information to avoid danger. In fact, it’s pattern recognition and information filtering which now appear to play a huge role in manifestations of unconscious bias.[6] 
The crosslink into information overload shouldn’t be shrugged off. A Raconteur infographic using IDC data shows that by 2025, 463 Exabytes of data will be generated each day. For reference, there are 1 million Terabytes (TB) in each Exabyte (EB). We navigate this data deluge precisely through pattern recognition, information filtering and quick mental shortcuts – unconscious biases fall into these categories.
As the amount of information we process increases, we retain the need to assess what constitutes a threat. Therefore as our minds create mental shortcuts and employ pattern recognition it's important to understand where unconscious bias may find it's way into our thinking.

Being right is so easy

Another contributing factor to our use of unconscious bias is simply that it’s easier for us to be “right.” This set of bias known as confirmation bias occurs when our minds seek to confirm what we already know simply because it’s easier. Being “right” means you can be on continue to be on mental autopilot for the time being. When we identify that we’ve made a mistake, either in judgement, action or belief, and take steps to correct it, that represents a much higher level of mental exertion than simply being “right” in the first place. 

So how often are we wrong about people?

It’s clear that in the world of unconscious bias training and awareness, the Implicit Association Test (IAT) is the de-facto. It checks a lot of boxes: Harvard, used by large companies, mentioned in most articles related to unconscious bias. It’s frequently cited as an eye-opener and a gateway into the world of understanding one’s own implicit bias.
The test uses word association at pace to determine what shortcuts your mind has created, in short it can tell you whether you have in fact created mental shortcuts which ultimately generate bias. Completing the test is a good first step in pivoting toward a more inclusive mindset but it’s not the end-all, be-all. 
“We are only as blind as we want to be”
Maya Angelou
Personally, the journey to mitigating my own bias is ongoing and ever-increasing in scope; parlaying into childhood, in-groups, family relations, a desire to belong, media exposure and beyond.
Recently, I’ve adopted a new exercise which has proved both insightful and surprisingly, reduced stress: pause, swap, re-assess. 
• Pause - Notice when the reaction meter fluctuates in response to something said or done by another person.
• Swap - Envision someone of a different group, characteristic, or attribute saying or doing the exact same thing.
• Re-assess - If you feel differently envisioning someone of a different group saying or doing the same thing, it’s  time to reassess the situation conscious of bias.

This exercise has two benefits:
1.      Pausing to note reaction to stimuli inherently affords time and space to clear out negativity conduits before they begin to tunnel through our minds.
2.      Mentally swapping in someone from a different group in the scenario and noting a similar or different reaction is a great check against bias. If your reaction stands no matter who you picture instigating it, you have an increased level of assurance that it’s a genuine reaction and not one rooted in bias. If you find your reaction changes, there’s likely a correlation to an unconscious bias at play.
In a world of ever-increasing complexity, where our minds are subject to seemingly exponential amounts of data and stimuli, our brains form shortcuts, deploy pattern recognition and filter information to keep up and keep us safe. Unfortunately, unconscious bias emerges as a potentially dangerous side effect.
Recognizing and challenging bias is in itself a significant achievement but overcoming it is a journey. However, it’s a journey well worth pursuing.

[6] 4 LeDoux, J. The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life, New York: Simon and Schuster

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