What is unconscious bias, and why is the Guardian reporting on it?

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Unconscious or implicit bias is one part of the explanation for why, despite equalities being enshrined in law, minority groups are still at a disadvantage in many parts of life. The term was popularised after US social psychologists devised a way of measuring the prejudices that we are not necessarily aware of – the Implicit Association Test. They published a paper in 1998 claiming that their tool for measuring “the unconscious roots of prejudice” showed that 90-95% of people were susceptible.

While the reliability of that test is now contested, there is overwhelming wider evidence that unconscious bias seeps into decisions that affect recruitment, access to healthcare and outcomes in criminal justice in ways that can disadvantage black and minority ethnic people. One study found that university professors were far more likely to respond to emails from students with white-sounding names. Another showed that white people perceived black faces as more threatening than white faces with the same expression.

In this series, Bias in Britain, we’re exploring some of the ways unconscious bias plays out in the real world. For example, we conducted a poll which found that ethnic minorities are much more likely to report being suspected of shoplifting, refused entry to bars and clubs or being unfairly overlooked for promotion at work.

While some of our biases may begin on an unconscious level, experts caution that the concept of unconscious bias should not absolve people of discriminatory behaviour. “If you’re aware of these associations then you can bring to bear all of your critical skills and intelligence to see it’s wrong to think like that,” says Lasana Harris, a neuroscientist who studies prejudice and social learning at University College London. “We all have the ability to control that.”

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