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There’s no denying it, unconscious bias is trendy. It’s so trendy, it’s even become an acronym in some of my circles, known affectionately as “UB.” But as often occurs when a term or concept becomes common or mainstream, myths and misinformation abound:

Myth 1: We don’t need to worry anymore about conscious bias or bigotry. We are not “post-racial.” Individual acts of verbal, physical and emotional violence against people due to their real or perceived group membership are still relatively common. One of my least favorite statistics is that the number of active hate groups in the U.S. has increased by 56 percent — to over 900 — since 2000, particularly since President Obama took office in 2008.

Myth 2: I don’t have any unconscious biases. It’s frightening to think we may not be 100 percent aware or in control of what we think and do. But brain science shows that if you’re a human being, your brain operates through biases. Homo sapiens evolved to constantly and unconsciously make immediate decisions based on limited data and pre-existing patterns. We are descended from the more skittish members of our species, so we’re hypersensitive to anything the old parts of our brain deems dangerous. Biases have thus served us for eons, and continue to do so, but are not effective in helping us interact effectively with diverse humans in today’s workplace. Bias elimination is not only ineffective, it’s impossible — the focus should be on bias reduction (see myth 5), choosing behaviors more mindfully, and mitigating any negative impacts of those behaviors. Check out “Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People” for a fascinating read.

Myth 3: I know what my unconscious biases are. By definition, UB is — well — unconscious. You may have a sense of what some are, but be blind to others. Consider taking one or more of the well-researched Implicit Association Tests. Keep in mind that our UB can often conflict with our conscious beliefs and values, and we may even hold negative UB against our own group! I’ve been doing some form of intercultural or diversity work for almost 25 years and many of my early role models were African-American women, and yet I showed a negative bias toward African-American men on one of the tests. Rather than deny our UB, we can be curious about where they come from and how they get so ingrained in our minds despite our good intentions and be more mindful of our actions. UB only become problematic when they manifest in ineffective behaviors.

Myth 4: Hooray! Since everyone’s biased, we can move on from that tired conversation about racism/sexism, etc.! Although everyone’s biased, biases are not equal in their impact at a group level. Negative UB held by a numerical majority or power-dominant group have a disproportionate ability to do harm to numerical minorities or power non-dominant groups.

Myth #5. Since UB is unconscious, there’s nothing I can do about it.  Excellent suggestions abound about how to mitigate the effect of negative UB in talent management and hiring practices through awareness, calibration and effective behaviors.  However, there seem to be few evidence-based strategies to reduce harmful negative biases in the first place other than these:

  1. Awareness of what our particular unconscious biases are (Pope, Price & Wolfers, 2014)
  2. Empathy, particularly “perspective taking”, or the ability to feel or imagine what another person feels or might feel (Todd, Bodenhausen, Richeson & Galinsky, 2011).
  3. Exposure to counter stereotypical role models. (Dasgupta & Asgari, 2004 and three other studies).
  4. Exposure to positive images to counteract negative bias (Dasgupta & Greenwald, 2001).
  5. Using imagery to imagine alternatives to negative stereotypes (Blair, Ma, & Lenton, 2001).
  6. Training to improve one’s ability to distinguish between faces of individuals in “other” racial groups (Lebrecht, Pierece, Tarr, & Tanaka, 2009, January).

What will you put in motion today to reduce the negative impacts of your unconscious biases?

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