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A look into unconscious bias

For the past several weeks, we have taken an in-depth look into emotional intelligence and explored the ways in which this skill can either help us or harm us in both our personal and professional lives. One important area of our lives that is particularly affected by emotional intelligence is our decision-making.

But emotional intelligence isn’t the only thing inside of us that impacts decision-making. There’s also the matter of unconscious bias, and according to a recent article published by McKinsey & Company, unconscious forces can be shaping our thinking more than we know.

Julia Sperling is a medical doctor with a background in neuroscience. She’s also a faculty member of McKinsey Leadership Development, where she helps aspiring leaders see how their thinking is shaped by cognitive biases, and how they can overcome them.

“Research has shown not only how unconscious bias can be measured—using what researchers call ‘implicit association testing,’ for example—but also how it can be countered to achieve better results. One topic that fascinates Julia and her team is how these ideas can be applied to influence large groups of people—even entire populations—to achieve better outcomes.

Julia’s work focuses on shifting mindsets and behaviors by highlighting beliefs and biases that constrain personal growth, learning, and job performance. These include misconceptions about how the brain works, often popularized by bad journalism and now disproved by neuroscience. You may have heard that you’re either right- or left-brained. Wrong. Or that you only use 10% of the capacity of your brain. Nope. In fact, the latest research suggests that the brain is infinitely more capable of learning in myriad ways, with positive reinforcement, focus, and a growth mindset.”

Over the next few weeks, in a new series, we’ll examine some of the common myths people have about the way we learn, and we’ll explore the latest research which shows just what exactly our brain is capable of. We’ll also talk more about the power of unconscious bias and ingrained beliefs, and how they affect us every day without our even knowing it.

To start off, what is unconscious bias to begin with?

“Research suggests that we instinctively categorize people and things using easily observed criteria such as age, weight, skin color, and gender. But we also classify people according to educational level, disability, sexuality, accent, social status, and job title, automatically assigning presumed traits to anyone we subconsciously put in those groups.

The ‘advantage’ of this system is that it saves us time and effort processing information about people, allowing us to spend more of our mental resources on other tasks. The clear disadvantage is that it can lead us to make assumptions about them and take action based on those biases. This results in a tendency to rely on stereotypes, even if we don’t consciously believe in them” (Mind Tools).

In other words, unconscious bias can sometimes lead to blind spots, which can then lead to discrimination.
It’s important to be aware of your own biases (we all have them) so that you can shift your blind spots and avoid discriminating against others. In the next blog, we’ll talk more about how you can achieve this and thereby avoid unconscious bias against others—both at work and in your personal life.

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