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Unconscious Bias: What Is It and What are Best Practices for Addressing It?

Actualizado: 6 jul 2023

I published this article in a work newsletter and wanted to share here.

We live in a complex world. According to research going as far back as the 1940’s our brain receives nearly 11 million bits of information per second. Only about 40-50 bits are intentionally addressed by our conscious mind. The rest are handled unconsciously through shortcuts the brain develops. Unconscious bias, also known as implicit bias, is one of those shortcuts.

Unconscious biases are automatic associations our brains make between what we are observing (someone’s race, gender, behavior, etc.) and information or messages we have received and internalized over our lifetime. If the internalized messages are inaccurate, or unfair, the automatic associations, and the final judgements we reach by those associations will also be inaccurate and unfair.

It is important to note there is usually a dissociation between a person’s unconscious biases and what they consciously believe or want to do. In other words, even though most people believe in inclusiveness and want to behave in ways that do not dismiss others, if they do now work towards recognizing their unconscious biases and are intentional about overcoming them, they may act in ways that are incongruent with the values they hold or who they want to be.

How do we overcome biases?

There are several best practices for decreasing bias in the workplace. My favorite list comes from Rachel Haderman (2021) in the document titled Anti-Bias Strategies: Behavioral Objectives Handout, published by Diversity Science.

I adapted Haderman's recommendations to create an easy to follow list. Offering this list to my co-workers has been very successful.

  • Positive Intention: Consciously viewing behaviors rooted in diverse cultural traditions as intended for good, and enriching.

  • Metacognition: Asking questions about your thought process such as: Do I only seek or accept information that confirms my biases? Would I treat this person the same way if they were more like me?

  • Creating Safe Spaces: Surrounding individuals with compassionate people. Making sure that physical spaces are free of biased messaging.

  • Growth Mindset: Seeing interactions as opportunities to learn and grow, not tests of your ability to be unbiased. This means we must make it safe for people to tell us if they notice we are treating them in biased ways.

  • Perspective-Taking: Pausing. Taking a moment to try to see things from the other person’s perspective. Imagining yourself in their shoes.

  • Partnership-Building: Discovering what you have in common with others. Focusing on shared goals. Working as a team. Use words like “we, us, and our”

  • Engaging in Self-Care: Implicit biases can be activated when we are busy, distracted, tired, anxious, stressed, or emotionally depleted. Practicing mindfulness, reducing life-stress through reflection and course-correction, reducing daily stress through exercise, music, prayer, restful sleep, or other practices, and cultivating positive emotions are all important.

  • Interrupting Biased Narratives: Listening for automatic assumptions. Gently point out misconceptions, and offering education as needed. This includes engaging in Allyship training and practices.

In healthcare unconscious biases that lead to negative evaluation of others may put already underserved patients at a greater disadvantage. It is incumbent on all working in healthcare to ensure we are aware of all biases and actively working to address them.

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