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Types of Unconscious Bias

Types of Unconscious Bias #1

Dr. Phil, the television doctor often says, “We can’t fix what we don’t admit.”  Problems that are hidden or not identified cannot be productively changed.  Biases work the same way.  Different biases in different situations must first be identified.  Only then can the error in judgement or thinking be identified and changed.

There are many different types of biases that a person can possess.  Unconscious biases can be based on a wide variety of attributes that are sourced from many different experiences.  The first four categories of unconscious bias to examine are:  affinity, halo effect, attribution, and confirmation.

 Affinity Bias

If you have ever heard the statement, “This employee was hired because he/she was a better fit with the company,” then you have been exposed to an affinity bias. What this statement really says is that the new employee shares the same interests as the hiring manager/team.

Affinity bias, also known as the similarity bias, can cause a team to become stagnant. There are limited new ideas, new approaches, etc. because everyone is the same. Affinity bias can cause a person to gravitate more towards people that share their interests, reside in the same neighborhood, or attended the same school. This can create a group of people whose thinking and working styles are practically identical.

Halo Effect

The “halo effect” bias is best described as a bias that involves preferring individuals that appear to have achieved more than others.  Judging an individual’s talents or skills based on unrelated qualities is the halo effect bias.  The person appears better than he/she may really be. The person has a “halo” that makes him/her appear fantastic.

A good example of the halo effect bias is when an employer only hires graduates from specific schools. This employer assumes that only those graduates are qualified to work in the organization.  The real truth is that graduates from other schools, public universities and colleges, are sometimes more qualified to perform the job. Often, the life experience necessary to be successful has not been learned at an Ivy League institution.

Attribution Bias

The attribution bias is judging another person before knowing the facts; forming an opinion before having all of the information. An example may be the person that gets to the parking space first.  The person that was waiting assumes that this person is rude and impolite, whereas they may have an elderly or ill person waiting for a prescription from the store.  The first driver may not have seen the second driver.

Attribution bias was first studied in the 50’s and 60’s.  Researchers determined that often people judge others on their actions.  Most attribute these actions to the other person’s personality.  Most do not take into account the particular situation or environment.  Take for example a grouchy customer: Is that customer grouchy because of a previous negative encounter with the staff?  Or is their mood based on the fact that they recently suffered a loss in the family, their car was in the garage, or their order was wrong for the second time?  This customer may usually be very friendly, but is now labeled as “grouchy.”

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is best defined as using one’s own beliefs or ideas to judge another person or a situation; instead of using the facts or proven merits. This type of bias can occur in the workplace when a manager forms an opinion of an applicant based on that person’s name. This type of bias often occurs before the manager has even met or spoken to the applicant.  For example: Bob has a prominent last name.  The recruiter automatically interviewed him for the manager position, instead of the forklift position that Bob had applied for.  When questioned at the interview, the recruiter told Bob that he had all the qualifications and could catch up in training; the manager’s position is the one that he should apply for.

Why is confirmation bias useful? This type of thinking bolsters our egos, and protects our self-esteem. Processing information in a way that supports our personal beliefs or ideas increases our feeling of being “right.” During decision making, the human brain gives special attention to data that is favorable and tends to ignore the data that is unfavorable. People tend to look for reasons that support their ideas, but have a hard time believing in an idea that they do not support.

It’s human nature to make the complex manageable & determine things that fit your conclusions. That’s bias. Richard Burr

 Types of Unconscious Bias #2

Often, biases go unnoticed, especially when they are not blatant racial or gender biases.  The biases that we encounter every day in the news and in current events are easily noticeable and can be confronted and challenged.  Unconscious biases are part of our decision-making.  They involve personal feelings and past experiences.  There are various types of biases that are much less obvious.  This module highlights four more types of unconscious biases that occur.

 Horns Effect

The bias that is referred to as the “horns effect” bias is the habit of judging a person without ever having met this individual; having a negative opinion, based on a negative report or rumor.  This bias is the opposite of the halo effect discussed earlier, where one’s abilities are overinflated.

Everyone can remember the kid in class that was judged because of his name. Before the teacher started the first day of class, he anticipated trouble.  This kid’s dad was a problem, his brother was a problem, etc. Because of this the teacher is on guard. This is a bias; unfair to this child. The same thing goes on in businesses today; a candidate’s reputation may precede them, resulting in missed opportunities.

Contrast Effect

Contrast effect bias occurs when individuals are compared based on their differences. Instead of comparing their similarities and skills, their differences are highlighted, usually as negatives. Four “A” students all have the same education; one is more verbal.  Does this student appear to be smarter or more educated?

This bias is one of the most common biases in the recruiting or hiring industry.  When a recruiter is interviewing applicants; an exceptional interview with a potential candidate may influence the recruiter’s view of the next candidate to be interviewed.

Beauty Bias

The beauty bias has two sides to it: “Beautiful” or “good-looking.” people are considered more intelligent and more capable; pretty people go further in life and experience more success.

Then, there is the opposite side to the beauty bias: Beautiful people are considered more feminine, weaker, and not as capable.  In some industries and businesses where strength is a component of the job, beauty can be seen as unfavorable.  Research has shown that attractive women are hired less often for jobs when appearance is less important, such as tow truck drivers or security guards.

Height Bias

Simply stated, the definition of a height bias is the preference of a specific height. People are sometimes untrusting of individuals that are shorter or taller than the social norm.  The belief that someone who is taller or shorter in height is less educated, less able or qualified, or less trustworthy; is considered height bias.  Studies have shown that men that are six foot and over earn more per year than men that are five foot tall. They are often the recipients of promotions and recognition over short men.

Consider these two phrases:

  •  John is a pillar of the community; people look up to him.
  • Sally is worried about her reputation; she doesn’t want people to look down on her.

Notice the references to directions.  The word “up” has a positive connotation.  The word “down” has a negative connotation.  Does this way of thinking work into an unconscious bias?  Possibly.

What a sad era when it is easier to smash an atom than a prejudice. Albert Einstein

Types of Unconscious Bias #3

That covers just a few of the unconscious biases that people may possess.   Although an individual may never intend to discriminate against another person, and may deny having any biases at all, we all have biases, deeply rooted within us.  To identify these tendencies in decision making is the beginning of changing these biases.

This module examines the next four unconscious biases.  These four biases are more common. Being aware of the issues, does not make the problems go away.  Our unconscious biases stand in the way of complete unbiasedness. They can lead to behavior that may be considered “unfair.”  To be better decision makers, we must identify our unconscious biases and make the necessary changes.

 Conformity Bias

Instead of being based on past experiences, Conformity Bias is defined as behaving in a manner that is similar to the people that are present, instead of acting on one’s own judgements or decisions.  These behaviors can change, based on the surrounding people or situations.

People are more comfortable following others. Mirroring the behaviors of others can become a hindrance. Behaviors such as bullying, cheating or stealing are contagious in the workplace.  When one is breaking the rules, others will follow due to the conformity bias.  Individuals that do not follow their own moral compass are destined to follow to the rule breakers many times.
Gender Bias

The preference of one gender over another is considered a gender bias.  This bias is one that we are all aware of.  There are news reports concerning equal pay, equal opportunity, and blatant cases of discrimination against one gender or another in recruiting and hiring.  Women have been fighting to be viewed as equals for years.  Those are the conscious biases that are encountered and are more easily identifiable.  But what about the unconscious gender bias?

Unconscious biases cause us to ignore the skills and talents of someone due to their gender.  How does this differ from the conscious bias?  Studies have been done on the hiring data of orchestras.  After the adoption of screens to shield the view of the applicants from the judges, the number of women hired greatly increased.  Consider your reaction the last time a male nurse attended to you.  Did you think that he was the doctor?  Consider the reactions a female electrician might receive.  That is the effect of a unconscious gender bias.

Name Bias

This bias is basically self-explanatory, it is a preference based on a person’s name.  Judging a person based on his or her name alone is a name bias. Name bias isn’t always based on last name alone.

A certain name may bring to mind an image: Elizabeth, Mohammad, Zachary, Alejandra. Laquisha.  When recruiters are faced with hundreds of applications for one position, does a person’s name come into play in the decision making of that recruiter? It shouldn’t, but does it?  Picture a hiring manager desperate for an English speaking hostess.  Which applications would get first consideration?

Ageism Bias

The preference of a specific age over another is the Ageism Bias; the most commonly discussed of the biases. Ageism bias is felt most often by older people.  Seniors can feel lost with new innovations and technology, especially in the workplace.  Statistics show that by the age of fifty more than half of older employees have felt some sort of ageism in the workplace.

Sometimes a younger person is not given the credit he/she deserves.  An example is a profession that may usually contain seasoned workers.  When a younger qualified worker is hired, he/she is not thought to be competent because of their lack of experience.

A gentleman can see a question from all sides without bias.  The small man is biased and can see a question only from one side. Confucius  


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