Unconscious bias

We all have unconscious bias. It comes from the part of the brain which developed first in our evolution though it is entirely learnt and ensured we were able to survive. Our unconscious or quick thinking (sometimes called gut reaction or, even, intuition) allows us to make very rapid decisions without having to think everything through from scratch. Instead we learn to devise patterns and identify groups and then, by allocating a person or an animal (or a situation) to a particular group we know whether to consider that person is one of our ‘in group’ and therefore a friend and safe, or one of our ‘out group’ and therefore a foe and not safe.

In the modern world we still use patterning and still attribute the characteristics we see or hear to a ‘group’ or stereotype and make judgements accordingly. This can be based upon gender, age, accent, ethnicity, disability, and many more.

The problems arise when we make significant decisions based upon our quick thinking, gut reaction, unconscious bias rather than analysing the information logically, using slow thinking or conscious thought. If we do this we run the risk of making a poorly informed decision or, at worst, exercising real discrimination.

For example, in the USA an experiment gave identical CVs to both male and female university teachers. The CV was allocated a male or a female name as an applicant for a science research post. Both male and female teachers rated the male applicant as more able and more hireable. The female applicant was described as ‘nicer’ but, if offered a job, was offered a lower starting salary than themale. Clearly the teachers were ‘reading between the lines’ and attributing to the male and female candidates certain characteristics that, stereotypically, they associate with males and females. In this they are using their unconscious thinking (patterning) and falling into the trap of unconscious bias.

It’s not just CVs. A major orchestra routinely hired more men than women, until the auditions took place behind a curtain. Once the candidate was invisible, the orchestra soon became 50% female.

As a teacher, making assumptions about male or female students’ preferences, or innate abilities can lead to students not being offered the opportunities or the help they deserve.

Although we can’t remove our unconscious bias, we can be aware of it and stop it causing us to make poor decisions or judgements. The trick is to be aware of the danger of unconscious bias and pause to think a second time – using our slow, conscious thinking, before acting.

As a teacher, we should think carefully before allocating roles in the lab or classroom. For example there is no reason why girls should always be the ones making notes or taking down the results while the boys are making the apparatus work. Teachers should challenge this if they see it happening or allocate unexpected roles to make sure both genders have experience of both aspects of scientific experimentation.

We also need to think carefully before advising students on potential careers opportunities and not assume that boys wouldn’t be interested in or suited to nursing or primary school teaching or that girls only want to work with people.

Students themselves should be encouraged to observe and discuss their own unconscious biases so that they confront their own tendency to stereotype both themselves and others.

If we consciously are aware of our biases and challenge ourselves, then our teaching and advice to students will be more balanced and fair.