Unconscious bias in action

Would you dislike someone just because they’re from the Forest of Dean?

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 18 Feb 2020

I’m sitting in the Putney branch of Pret a Manger when I overhear a strange conversation.  

“I don’t like the girl they’ve gone with…”, the woman sharing my table grumbles into a phone. My ears prick as I pretend to attend to my Americano.

“She has the same qualifications as me, but… she’s from the Forest of Dean.”

I thought it was a joke at first, but she went on in all seriousness. 

“They’re all weirdos. I really don’t know about her...”

It’s a glaring, if not slightly bizarre example of unconscious bias in action.  

Unwittingly making judgments about a person’s capabilities due to their background or appearance is one of the main reasons behind the gender pay gap, an underrepresentation of ethnic minorities at board level and the fact that disabled people are 28.6 per cent less likely to find a job than non-disabled people. 

By sending employees on unconscious bias awareness courses and changing their recruitment practices, business leaders are slowly starting to address the problem, but there’s little evidence of a substantial shift in attitudes. 

What’s particularly prescient about my indiscreet table companion’s case is that it shows that unconscious bias comes in many, sometimes less-than-obvious forms. She presumably didn’t think of herself as having a prejudice, yet there’s no other way to describe it. 

A 1998 study by the University of Washington and Yale suggests that as many as 95 per cent of people are affected by unconscious bias in some way. And while clearly some demographic groups have been much more affected than others, any form of unconscious bias can be dangerous.  

In their book Messengers, Steve Martin and Joseph Marks explore the impact of messenger bias on how we perceive people. 

They find that how a person speaks, their career background as well as where they come from can all affect the level of competence that is attributed to them. Our opinion of an individual is also skewed by the opinions of others.

“There’s an effect called guilt by association,” says Marks. “If a person is introduced by a person you perceive as incompetent, you’re more likely to perceive them as incompetent.”

It also works the other way, adds Marks, so if a candidate is endorsed by someone generally respected in a business, they’re more likely to be looked upon favourably. 

It happens, like other forms of unconscious bias, because we have a tendency to follow what is familiar or fall back on what we know in order to make quick decisions. But by failing to question our own biases, we run the risk of creating homogenous, single-minded and ultimately dysfunctional organisations. 

My dissatisfied table partner may have a particular aversion to ash trees, a scorn for Anglo-saxon hunting grounds or a nemesis from Lydney, but it doesn’t mean her new hire will be incompetent, fail to fit with company culture or indeed “struggle to be away from her brother”.

Fortunately, her HR department doesn't seem to share that sentiment. 

Image credit: Mark Hawkins/Barcroft Media/Getty Images


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