Why You Need to Pay More Attention to Your Conscious Bias
We often hear about unconscious biases, why we need to be aware of them, how to discover them, and how to eliminate them. But what about conscious biases? How do we manage those? We focus on unconscious bias because it sounds nicer than conscious bias. It’s not our fault; we’re not doing it on purpose. More interestingly, as a Skyline Group International colleague, Laura Taylor, put it: what about acknowledging you made your conscious bias unconscious because of denial or guilt?
No one wants to be “that” person who is prejudiced and biased, so you try to deny your feelings, but they seep into your thoughts and even actions. The hard truth is everyone has bias and conscious bias at that. In fact, research conducted by psychologists at the Queen Mary University of London in 2015 suggests most decisions are made on a conscious level. Some thought leaders propose unconscious thoughts control many of our actions and we should follow our “gut feelings,” but the truth is we consciously control our thoughts and actions. We must take the time to think them through.
In other words, denying or claiming bias is unconscious isn’t a good excuse. Having conscious biases doesn’t make you a bad person, everyone has them. However, we do need to acknowledge these biases and take steps to manage them. Here’s how:
Acknowledge Your Bias
Coming to terms with our conscious bias means acknowledging our prejudices are programmed as part of our survival mechanisms. From an evolutionary standpoint, we tend to like people who share our values and interests because the more similar they are to us, the less dangerous they are. In fact, we tend to be attracted to people who have similar DNA, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2014 suggests. The research found married couples have fewer differences in DNA than two people selected at random. This study points to a theory that we naturally sort people into two categories: those who are like us, and those who are different than us. In other words, we see people as friend or foe. Once we recognize and can appreciate why we have these inherent reactions, we can manage our biases. This means we catch ourselves actively looking for ways we reinforce our biases, and then retrain our thinking.
Acknowledging this blatant bias has serious benefits. According to research conducted by researchers at the University of Vermont and published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2015, adults who acknowledge their bias are more equipped to handle racial and social challenges than those who claim they’re not biased. That’s because adults who are aware of their bias can take steps to correct it, while others choose to ignore it. Acknowledgment is a two-step process. First, realize you have a conscious bias, and that it’s natural. Then, monitor your thoughts and actions to catch bias.
Separate Fact from Fiction
Acknowledging bias is the first step, but just because we’re aware doesn’t mean our thoughts and behaviors correct automatically. We need to put in hard work to keep those biases under control. And that starts with facts. The problem is, we tend to see facts in light of what we already believe. This is called confirmation bias. We focus on the data and facts that support our beliefs and ignore information that contradicts it. After all, a study conducted by researchers at the University of Iowa in 2015 found that once people reach a conclusion, they aren’t likely to change their minds, even when new information shows their initial belief is likely wrong.
So changing your bias will take a conscious effort, one that requires you to separate your feelings and beliefs from fact. Take time to review the facts objectively. Then, when you feel bias creeping up, give yourself an internal fact check. Are your feelings based on fact? What evidence do you have to back up these feelings?
You can even separate your bias from fact through meditation. Research from the University of Sussex in 2015 found just seven minutes of meditation can help reduce racial bias. So when biased thoughts pop up, reflect on them before taking action. Separating fact from feelings isn’t easy, but it’s a necessary step in the process of managing conscious bias.
Retrain Your Brain
To get rid of conscious bias, you’ll need to retrain your brain. Your brain has thought the same way about certain people and traits for years, so you need to reverse the habit. Researchers from the University of British Columbia tried this approach with children. In their study, published in Child Development, children listened to stories about African Americans contributing positively to their communities. After hearing these stories, the children showed less bias in an assessment. While the study participants were children, the same approach can work in adults, as well. The more exposure we have to different thoughts, cultures, and people, the more we expand our thinking and can change long-held beliefs.
Just getting to know someone, working closely with them, and finding something you have in common can help, 2009 research from Ohio University suggests. When white adults were placed in the same group as African Americans, their racial biases toward them decreased. The researchers suggest it was because they were on the same team – they shared an identity. Don’t let bias hold you back from interacting with different people. Instead, retrain your brain by getting to know these people and working on the same team.
Conscious bias is an ugly term, and it’s much easier to think of prejudices as forms of unconscious bias. But by ignoring the truth, we allow these biases to persist. It’s time to come to terms with your biases, it’s the only way to get over them and move forward.
What’s your take on conscious versus unconscious bias? Share your thoughts in the comments!