The Power of Unconscious Bias

The Power of Unconscious Bias

Imagine the population of Florida… What do you see in your mind’s eye? Florida, the state for retired people with an aging population? The statistics don’t support this perception. In fact, the number of retired people who live in Florida, which is said to be the pensioners’ paradise, is only marginally higher than in other US states. What is the reason for this perception?

The culprit is the so-called unconscious bias, an unthinking assumption. We all have such assumptions and we can’t simply get rid of them with some sort of therapy. And nor should we because they have an important function: A quick decision, for example, whether to enter into a certain conflict, avoid it or freeze – which can be a life-saving strategy in certain situations.

In particular, when we are under stress and pressure and tend to operate in thinking system 1. This is precisely when the mind resorts to these basic assumptions, which we have taken on or developed on the basis of our experience and which can actually also be helpful.

Unfortunately, however, they can have a highly dysfunctional effect. Even if we are convinced that we don’t fall prey to stereotypes, we can be caught by them. It has been found, for example, that people who achieve a high score in the implicit association test with regard to gender-based stereotypes (regardless of whether they are men or women) also frequently tell sexist jokes. And the truth is that we all catch ourselves now and then thinking “typical man” or “typical woman”.

And that has negative effects on performance evaluations, content and the type of mentoring programs etc. Various pieces of research have shown that the same behaviours are assessed differently when they are exhibited by men and women. While a man tends to be regarded as competent and likeable, for example, a competent woman is seen as less likeable.

It’s not a generational matter because there is a lot of discussion about sexism in Silicon Valley at the moment, where it is much harder for women to find investors than it is for men. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung newspaper says: “This was something that Eric Schmidt definitely hadn’t expected: two years ago the Supervisory Board chairman of the internet giant Google took part in a panel discussion at the digital conference ‘South by Southwest’ in Austin, Texas. He was sitting next to Megan Smith, a former Google manager who had subsequently taken up a government post, as well as the author Walter Isaacson. Amongst other things, the group talked about the need to increase the presence of women in the technology sector. Right at the end a woman in the audience spoke up; what she had to say initially seemed quite harmless. She referred to research which showed that women are interrupted more frequently than men in conversations. Then she went on the attack. She asked Schmidt and Isaacson whether they were actually aware that they had interrupted Megan Smith in the foregoing debate much more frequently than she had interrupted them. Enthusiastic applause erupted in the room. Both men on the stage smiled uncomfortably, and neither of them replied to the question.”