Unconscious Bias by Cindy Kou

What is unconscious bias?

We can all understand overt discrimination: for example, I-dislike- you-because- you’re-a- ______.  Unconscious bias is what’s left once we remove overt discrimination from the equation. It contributes to why, for example, Canadian women still earn $0.87 to men’s $1, despite Canada having legislated gender pay equity, or the instinct to gift a male child Legos and female child a doll.

This is easier to explain if we take a detour. Dr. Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, posits that our brains make decisions using two systems: System 1 (fast, reflexive, intuitive, effortless thinking) and System 2 (slow, reasoned, takes-lots-of-effort thinking). To illustrate the difference, try the two questions below:

• Cna you raed tihs?
• What is 15 x 237?

Was the first sentence reasonably easy to read? If so, you are probably a native (or very proficient) English speaker and that was System 1 at work. Your brain automatically filled in little bits of information to make the sentence make sense.

Were you able to answer the second question as quickly as the first? Maybe you, like me, began to multiply 5 x 7 and carry the 3 … then wished for a calculator. This is System 2—slower, and requiring more effort, than System 1.

System 1 and System 2 thinking touch all aspects of our lives. System 1 gets us through the millions of pieces of information we need to process (understanding typos, deciding what to wear, driving, etc.), while System 2 is where we apply our focus and make our conscious decisions. We have a limited capacity to work in System 2, so our brains prefer to have System 1 run the show by instinctively trying to take mental shortcuts whenever possible.

Unconscious bias is the mapping of System 1 and System 2 thinking onto equity, diversity, and inclusion. It is the undesired consequence of System 1 thinking, when System 1 fills in information about an individual or situation that is incorrect or unfounded and produces discriminatory effects. Unconscious bias might manifest as unintentionally hiring only people whose backgrounds are most similar to our own. It might also look like subconsciously fearing or distrusting people of some backgrounds more than others, and resulting in the overrepresentation of certain groups in the criminal justice system.

Quick! Imagine a firefighter. Did you imagine someone whose age, religion, ethnicity, ability, gender, sexual orientation, and so forth, mirror the image of firefighters with which you are most familiar? How might that impact who gets recruited as a firefighter? Who gets promoted? Who is excluded or not considered?

Like with the misspelled sentence, the System 1 thinking/unconscious bias does not come from a place of malice or overt discrimination, but it can produce similar outcomes if left unnoticed and unchecked.


What to do about unconscious bias?

One step to address your unconscious bias is to learn more about yourself. To start, try the (free, anonymous, short) Harvard Implicit Association Test, which has quick quizzes that can show you how your biases skew on sexuality, weight, countries, age, gender, skin tone, and race.  Another step is to keep an eye out for unconscious bias – your own, and that of others. The next time you are, or your organization is, making a decision, especially an important one, consider why and how you are making the decision you are making. Here are some questions you might ask:

  • Are the right parties involved in making the decision? Why or why not?
  • Do you have the right information to make your evaluation, and are you giving the information you have the correct weight? Why or why not?
  • Does your decision-making process allow sufficient time for each stakeholder to review and process the information, and for each key stakeholder to voice concerns, questions, or opinions? Why or why not?
  • What mental shortcuts might you be taking?
  • What tweaks need to be made to improve your decision-making process?

You will not be alone in consciously striving for more mindful decision-making. For instance, former Canadian Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin is rumoured to have to sought the other Supreme Court justices’ opinions in reverse order of seniority to avoid letting her authority as Chief Justice sway or silence the opinion of another justice. Meanwhile, President Obama reduced decision fatigue (exhausting his System 2 capacity) by paring down the number of decisions he needed to make each day, for example, by only wearing gray or blue suits.

For more information, consider reading Thinking: Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman and Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein.

As individuals and situations change, so, too, will the mental short cuts and processes needed to counteract them. This is hard and never-ending work – good luck, and good work!


Cindy Kou is a construction lawyer at Gowling WLG, who she thanks for giving her opportunities to explore unconscious bias.  Her interests include effective writing, system design, and gluten.

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