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Solving the mystery of unconscious bias

Solving the mystery of unconscious bias

By Fiona White

We are all biased. Some of our biases are learned and others are hard wired.

For many starting out in research careers it is important to acknowledge the impact that unconscious bias can have on you and the impact that our own unconscious bias can have on others. After all as a result of the hard work and effort that goes into research, shouldn’t we aspire to ensure that the best and brightest succeed irrespective of their background or personal characteristics?

Today, Equity and Diversity units throughout industry and higher education sectors are conducting compulsory staff workshops on unconscious bias in the hope of eradicating or preventing it.

But what exactly is unconscious bias, can it be measured accurately via the Implicit Association Test (IAT) [see], and most importantly, can it be reduced?

This post critically reviews the evidence to address these core issues, and highlights to students, researchers and future workshop convenors the importance of understanding the psychological underpinnings of unconscious bias.


What is unconscious bias?

The concept of ‘the unconscious’ first came to prominence via the psychological writings of Sigmund Freud (1912). Freud proposed that our motivations remain largely hidden from our conscious minds. An unconscious conception is one of which we are not aware, “but the existence of which we are nevertheless ready to admit on account of other proofs or signs” (Freud, 1912, p. 260; italics mine). In other words, our unconscious mental states are unknown to us, whereas our conscious mental states are known. More recently, social cognitive psychologists have attempted to integrate the concept of unconscious using similar concepts such as automatic or implicit bias into better understanding prejudice and discrimination.

Unconscious bias is related to the natural human tendency to categorise and compartmentalize the world, in order to understand it better. It can be both positive and negative in nature and affects the assumptions we make about a person, without having met them previously. Unconscious bias may lead us to treat people differently, according to their gender, race or sexual minority status, weight and other categories without being aware that we are actually doing it. For example, Australian research has shown that Anglocised names on resumes received more employer call-backs for interviews than ethnically sounding names; interviewees that have something in common with the interviewer, such as attending the same university or high school, are more likely to be given the job. Unconscious processes govern many of the most important decisions we make and have a profound effect on the lives of the people we socialise and work with. But how do we measure our biases that we are unaware of?


Can unconscious bias be measured accurately?

Anthony Greenwald and colleagues (1998), from Harvard University, developed the Implicit Association Test (IAT) to measure unconscious bias across various domains. For example, the Race IAT asks people to react across several 100 trials of pairings of the words such BLACK and LAZY and WHITE and LAZY. If the millisecond reaction time is slower when pairing WHITE with an unpleasant category (LAZY) than BLACK with LAZY, then Greenwald interprets this finding to mean that people are racially biased against blacks.          

Critics of this interpretation argue that millisecond reaction time measures of bias such, as the IAT, may make it difficult for people to control their automatic responses. However, it is important to note that lack of control does not necessarily equate to unawareness or unconscious racism (Blanton & Jaccard, 2008). These same critics also argue that the IAT has less than acceptable behavioural predictability (i.e., scores measuring millisecond associations do not predict racial discrimination) and test-retest reliability (i.e., doing the same IAT twice can produce inconsistent scores). So even if unconscious bias exists, accurately measuring it remains a challenge for psychologists.

If unconscious bias is learnt, can it be reduced effectively?

Another intriguing aspect of IAT research is that both targets and perpetrators of prejudice reveal a bias score towards the target group. In other words, even targets of unconscious bias have learnt to internalise this bias, and self-report a degree of self-bias toward their own group. So everyone, majority (Whites, heterosexuals, male CEOs etc) and minority individuals (Blacks, homosexuals, female CEOs) have learnt these same stereotypes and biases.


Consequently, unconscious bias relating to race, gender, or sexual orientation should not be seen as the cause of workplace discrimination, but more accurately as an effect or symptom of being socialised in a society that on a daily basis, stereotypes differences between groups. The way forward is not to simply be aware of our unconscious bias – as most Equity and Diversity workshop convenors conclude,  but to teach strategies that prevent stereotypical associated thoughts (i.e., between BLACK and LAZY) from ever entering our consciousness in the first place.

This learning of positive attitudes towards different social, cultural and religious groups must begin at home, and during the earliest stages of child development (White, Hayes & Livesey, 2015). Parents, peers and educators hold the key to this learning, and this learning must be life-long and sustained through intergroup cooperative contact with others who may be different to us.  Intergroup cooperative contact with different individuals and groups, broadens our minds and promotes more inclusive thinking, which in turn makes us less reliant on false stereotypes and biases about others (White, Harvey, & Verrelli, 2015).

So, it is safe to conclude that unconscious bias cannot be reduced by attending an Equity and Diversity workshop, but it can be reduced through life-long supportive intergroup communication and a genuineness to act cooperatively with people who are different to us. This message is particularly relevant to the research community. In many instances judgement calls are required on; student progress, academic promotions, funding outcomes and evaluating the quality of research presented at conferences and in journal articles. The literature on unconscious bias points to the fact that in all key areas our decision making may be subject to our own lens and worldview. A commitment to stepping out of our own shoes and acknowledging our own bias is an important first step to making sure that the best and brightest do succeed, irrespective of their background.


Blanton, H., & Jaccard, J. (2008). Unconscious racism: A concept in pursuit of a measure. Annual Review of Sociology, 34, 277-297.

Freud, S. (1912) A note on the unconscious in psychoanalysis. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud , Vol. 12 . London: Hogarth Press.

Greenwald, A. G., McGhee, D. E., & Schwartz, J. L. (1998). Measuring individual differences in implicit cognition: the implicit association test. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1464.

White, F. A., Hayes, B., & Livesey, D. (2015). Developmental psychology: From infancy to adulthood (4th Ed.,). Sydney: Pearson Education Australia.

White, F. A., Harvey, L., & Verrelli, S. (2015). Including both voices: a new bidirectional framework for understanding and improving intergroup relations (Invited contribution). Australian Psychologist, 50, 421- 433.

About Fiona White

Fiona White is a Professor in Social Psychology at the Univeristy of Sydney. She graduated with a PhD from the University of Sydney in 1997 and her research expertise concerns the development of effective strategies to promote cooperative intergroup relations. Fiona leads a number of prejudice and stigma reduction projects involving contact and recategorization strategies. You can learn more about Fionas academic career here

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