Bias into Action: Rewiring our unconscious associations

With a Twitter handle like @fatwhitebloke, it's certainly hard to know what to expect in a talk by Implicitly author and unconscious bias guru Dr Pete Jones. Dr Jones routinely delivers presentations on unconscious bias to every sector group imaginable - HR professionals, police, lawyers, nuclear engineers, academics, bankers - and 17 May added 'psychologists' to the list at the Association for Business Psychology's speaker event in London.

Dual processing and social categorisation

In introducing the idea of conscious and unconscious processing, Dr Jones first uses maths problems to illustrate dual processing - and how our brains even manage to begin processing new data in addition to the daily onslaught of information. The unconscious must process even more information even more quickly, and thus is constantly looking for methods to help its efforts - one of which is social categorisation, which can lead to pigeonholing and, eventually, bias.

“What the brain fires together, the brain wires together,” Dr Jones says in relation to unconscious bias. Indeed, it's impossible to avoid wiring together the patterns your brain sees on a daily basis - what is possible, Dr Jones suggests, is unearthing and addressing those patterns that could affect behaviour.

Dr Jones runs through a list of some of the biases affecting us in the workplace, including gender, age, disability, weight - even height. Over six feet tall? You're more likely to be a leader - very possibly due to the assumption that tall = powerful. Even job descriptions themselves can contain such loaded language that they may be co-authored by our unconscious.

Bias by the numbers

Hogrefe's unconscious bias testing tool Implicitly, authored by Dr Jones, measures bias in a number of areas and identifies a 'level' of bias (low, elevated, high).

Dr Jones details some of the data he's pulled using anonymised Implicitly results, showing unconscious bias is at play in our work environments - though the levels are different across particular sectors.

For instance, 31% of employees tested in the Financial Sector are shown to have an age bias - in contrast to 17% in the Engineering. In the Police Sector, gender bias in relatively low in comparison to other sectors - and in Engineering rather high. And if you think this isn't such a big deal, Dr Jones surmises that if selection and promotion decisions were affected by gender bias even just 1% of the time - in a large company five years into the future, a noticeable imbalance may be formed.

Using Implicitly to measure and address bias

When we implement bias testing, it's key to think about things like the ethics of testing - why are we testing, what tests are we using and how will we use the results? How will we communicate with test takers - and who will see their results? How will the data be kept secure? These questions should all have firm answers before undertaking testing within an organisation.

Organisations can be trained (in person or virtually) to use Implicitly to identify and address bias in their organisations - and to use those results in a useful and ethical manner, raising awareness and, with time and training, conscious action.

You can find more information on Implicitly on the Hogrefe website, including upcoming training dates.

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