We categorize things; then make unconscious decisions on those things, based on how we categorize them. We may not even be aware we’re doing it.
Unconscious Bias, – or Implicit Bias – is a term that has been floating around the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion community for upwards of twenty years, but now the effects of unconscious bias are entering mainstream conversations about business, education, responsible consumerism, etc.
With the everyday effects of unconscious bias being discussed in the day-to-day, it’s important to dive into how unconscious bias functions. Thankfully, behavioral research in neuroscience has recently provided a great deal of information explaining the how and why behind unconscious bias.
How Does Unconscious Bias “Take Root”?
Now, how does unconscious bias “grow,” without us knowing it? Unconscious – or implicit – bias is a subtle cognitive process that begins in the amygdala. People rapidly categorize things, as they’re prone to sort things (and themselves) into groups.1
The brain processes billions of stimuli daily, forcing our brain to choose what to focus on. This process begins in the amygdala. The way we process unconscious bias starts the same way: first through the amygdala, then to the hippocampus, then to the temporal lobe then to the media frontal cortex. Because we’re constantly processing so much stimuli, our conscious brain isn’t aware of everything that is being filtered or categorized.
So what happens?
Our unconscious brain filters information based on past experiences or instincts, while our conscious brain is processing new information.
Why is this important?
Our unconscious brain uses history to categorize the present. Our amygdala – the “survival instinct” portion of the brain – tends to categorize things as ‘like me’ or ‘not like me.’2
What happens next?
Once the amygdala does its job, the hippocampus links new information with memories, which can make the brain (and the person) think their understanding of new information is correct, when it only feels correct because it is linked to a subjective, familiar memory or experience.
Now, even though information passes through the amygdala and hippocampus first, more explicit bias – such as stereotyping – happens in the left temporal lobe and frontal cortex. This happens because the left temporal lobe stores information about people and objects and their associations while the frontal cortex holds emotions responses such as rational thought and empathy.4
This is just a simple overview of how neuroscience and its understanding of the brain have informed and outlined the factual foundation of unconscious bias. Beyond the science, there is much more to understand: such as how to identify and address unconscious bias, how to work to lessen the effects, etc. However, none of that can happen without first exploring the science of bias.
Exploring the science exposes its roots. Exposing the roots helps explain why. And explaining why helps us understand how we can grow and changes.
As with most things, a little sunlight and fresh air does wonders.
1. Brainard, Michael. LEADERSHIP PITFALLS AND INSIGHTS INTO UNCONSCIOUS BIAS
2, 3, 4. Choate, Andrea. Neuroleadership Lessons: Recognizing and Mitigating Unconscious Bias in the Workplace
ECCO International has extensive experience in helping clients improve both speaking and listening skills, so we’re the best ones to help you identify opportunities for improvement. We improve employee and organizational effectiveness by developing multicultural competence for clients in national and global markets. We change the workplace environment on a long-term basis, which enhances the productivity of your organization. When workplace environment improves, productivity increases, thereby increasing profits!