Understanding Unconscious Bias – A Deeper Dive

NOTE: This is a transcription of Webfor’s Founder & CEO, Kevin Getch, discussing unconscious bias. The video is embedded below. 

Hey, so, I’m excited to talk to you about one of my favorite topics today, human psychology. I’m going to focus mostly on unconscious bias, sometimes called implicit bias, and/or even sometimes referred to as unintentional bias, because it’s not something that is consciously intentional, but it’s happening under the surface.

Why Understanding Unconscious Bias is Important

So, a quick little background to give you some context. In my day to day just from a marketing standpoint, one of the reasons I got into marketing is because I was very passionate about human psychology and understanding the way people worked, why we are the way we are, how we develop, and I actually was going to be a psychologist at one point. I was considering that path and went down more of the path of marketing and entrepreneurship and those kinds of things, but I’ve never stopped having a passion for people and really understanding who we are and why we are the way we are.

So, I’m going to walk you through a couple of different things. I want to first start and make sure that you understand: unconscious bias in and of itself isn’t a whole bad thing. It’s not something that’s 100% bad, right? There’s good aspects to it, and there can be bad aspects to it.

The fact is, everyone, every human, has unconscious bias.

It’s not necessarily something that we will ever get rid of. It’s more about being aware of it. I’ll talk a little bit about that and learning how to be more mindful in moments and then do more self-exploration. 

The Human Brain

To understand some of those unconscious biases where maybe they’re unintended, there’s a lot of unintentional things that may have been picked up along the way, beliefs. Some of them are personal about yourself. Some of them are about others. It’s really interesting, as people start to explore it. So I’ll kind of walk you through a couple of different things and I think it will be helpful to understand in general. So I’ll give you a brief overview of just kind of the brain, how it works.

A lot of us think that we are thinking a lot more rationally, right? Like a lot of us think we’re making rational decisions. We have the new cortex, which is more often called the rational or thinking brain. But I’ll show you from studies that have been done, and as you start to understand the human brain more and understand how we work, that most of our decisions aren’t necessarily very rational. They’re instinctual, they’re emotional. And I’ll walk you through that. 

So you have the limbic or mammal brain, which is more of the emotional or feeling brain, right? So that is partially responsible for your pain and pleasure response and association of memories with certain emotions and pain and pleasure, and things like that.

And then you have the reptilian brain. Now the reptilian brain, which is the instinctual part of the brain, and a lot of the decision making actually happens here. So at this point, it’s done, when decisions are made, it’s often done here and I won’t dive so deep into it, but, it’s important to kind of understand it.

Where all this comes from, it really comes from survival. The instinctual brain is really about keeping you alive, right? So your heart pumping and breathing is great. That’s a good thing while you’re sleeping, it’s one of the reasons you keep breathing, your heart keeps pumping your blood, everything’s happening, right.

It’s also responsible for the four F’s — fight, flight, food and fornication. Those are kind of instinctual drivers that we all have and partially to survive. So, I think it’s important that when you have that context and you understand it, there can be a lot of fun in our decision making.

If we’re not very conscious of it, a lot of our decision making revolves around our own self-interest. And until you really kind of raise that consciousness a little bit more is when you start to make decisions on a broader scale at a higher level and how they not only impact yourself, but how they impact others.

I won’t go too deep down this because there’s a lot of technical details to report. But to understand these specific parts of the brain, I think it’s good to know the conscious mind. 

The Use of Your Subconscious Mind

This was a study done by Harvard. The conscious mind, in the study, was only used about 5% of the times that the rational part of the brain was used about 5% of the time in decision making processes, whereas the subconscious mind was being used 95% of the time. So sometimes when you hear things about implicit and explicit bias, explicit tends to be more surface level. These are things that you’re doing outward that are often actions, and sometimes you’re making rational thoughts about it.

Implicit biases tend to be more of that subconscious bias that is under the surface. Sometimes we don’t even know that’s going on in our unconscious mind. If it was processing information it would be processing like 40 bits of information a minute or something like that, whereas the unconscious mind would be doing like 40 million. 

So just to give you a little bit of an understanding that our unconscious mind is constantly analyzing and judging, and taking pre-existing associations and ideas that it had developed over time through the development as you’ve grown up to utilize those, to make quicker decisions and partially to keep us alive. We need to be able to make quick decisions to be able to stay alive at different times of our life. 

The Riverbed Analogy

So, let me walk you through an analogy I like to use because I think it provides better context for understanding people. So I’ll give you a couple different areas here that I think are important.

And one is, I think, in general, what a lot of the world’s problems as a whole come back down to. They all come back down to us raising our collective consciousness as a people, right. We, the people, have that responsibility to all raise our collective consciousness so that we can make better decisions. Because ultimately the quality of one’s life, is the quality of the decisions that they make over time.

So I think that that’s a really important aspect to understand. This not only benefits you as you grow as a person and kind of raises your consciousness and self awareness, but if you want to see an impact in the world, the quickest way to do that is to grow your own level of understanding and consciousness as a whole.

So I call this analogy the Riverbed, and basically it’s the water in this river. So I was hiking up the Gorge, the Columbia River Gorge, and I took this picture. It’s a beautiful view, but the water in this river, if you want to think about your everyday — your thoughts, your emotions, your actions — are like the water of this river.

The riverbed itself is more like your core beliefs — your programming, your identity, the things that have developed over time — and there’s these layers and layers of beliefs stacked upon beliefs, creating these core beliefs. Beliefs about the world, beliefs about others, beliefs about men and women, beliefs about yourself, beliefs about, all sorts of things.

These beliefs over time create, in general, your identity, your kind of patterns that you have created. So you tend to follow these thought processes and these patterns. To understand someone else’s perspective, it can sometimes be hard, right? When you have this big ridge here, it’s blocking your view.

So that’s kind of what happens over time. As we develop this worldview and it’s our own perspective, we think we’re seeing reality, but we’re seeing reality through this lens that has been created. It’s all based on the parents you were born to, a lot of the beliefs, standards, thoughts, ideas, strategies that you picked up from them, your experiences throughout your life, the culture that you grew up in, the society, your access to different things.

I mean, there’s all these different elements that kind of come into play that have, to some extent, developed your belief systems and your worldview. So, as you start to create that, your identity and the way you develop those things is one of the strongest forces that we tend to stay true to.

If you tell yourself “I’m not a public speaker” or that “I’m afraid of that,” you’re probably not going to get up on stage in front of 500 people, right? That’s just not consistent with your identity. And also if you believe you’re a good person and you believe “this is the way I define a good person,” you’re going to stay true to that identity for the most part. 

And there’s conflicts, and there’s other things that can happen as well. But, our thoughts, our emotions, our actions, follow this path of least resistance that has been predeveloped on all these patterns. And a lot of times, the reasons there’s bends in the water and things like that, is there may be some big element there that is fearful, is painful and you’re avoiding that whole thing. So when that comes up, you avoid these things. So there’s all these detours in the lake. You can often find associations around pain or sometimes pleasure, with what you’re doing. This has everything to do with the entire life, our experience, our associations with food and eating, to our associations with what a relationship should be like, to our associations with what it means to be successful, and our identity of what we think our life should be like. And then where’s the mismatch?

So there’s all these different elements that kind of come into play. But at the baseline, what happens is there’s often these representations. Think of them like a tabletop. If you had a tabletop and then you had kind of like your idea or belief with supporting beliefs underneath it, and the more supporting beliefs or experiences or representations that you’ve created, the stronger that structure is of that belief.

So what happens often is we make incorrect associations. The way our brain works is it doesn’t necessarily see reality. Our brain is skewed to find things based on our pre-programming. So we look for certain things. There are different ways, and that’s why you’ll have someone say, you know, that they saw one thing, another person saw another thing, or you’ll ask different questions. Everyone has different pains, it’s because we are all unique. And at the end of the day, I think it’s so important, one of the most important things, one of the things I’ve really worked on getting better at in my life, is to really appreciate the uniqueness, appreciate differences of opinion. Appreciate all the differences that make up the world and realize that we have developed this worldview, we have developed these things. 

And the cool thing about it is, if it isn’t matching, if it isn’t beneficial for you, if you have patterns or have developed certain things that you look at and you’re like, this isn’t beneficial for me or it’s self-defeating or whatever it is, you can change it.

I mean, they’re all just mental constructs. It’s something that can be changed, but what happens with the unconscious biases is because a lot of this stuff is being processed underneath the surface. If you think about the layer of water, the top area, kind of being more the rational thinking, we have a lot that’s under the surface.

Then we have all the riverbeds, so that’s making up most of what’s going on. And obviously we have free will, but free will only goes so far within our patterns because you can try to row against the current and continue doing those things. But until you change the underlying patterns, that’s what happens with a lot of behavioral people who try to change behaviors is they’re trying to put a force of free will in there, which has to be done in order to change, but then they don’t understand the underlying patterns or the reasons why they’re doing those things in the first place. And if those don’t change, they often fall back in that same pattern or groove because it’s the path of least resistance and they have those mental associations that have been developed at more of a subconscious level. 

So it’s important when you understand this, to realize that a lot of this stuff was imprinted on you either sometimes through the media, through learning as you grew up in society. And so a lot of this stuff isn’t necessarily stuff you understand or consciously think about all the time.

Unconscious Bias In Day-To-Day Life

So whether it be our roles and how we think about men or women, and think about these constructs, but then we bring that into a workplace, that can create bias unconsciously. You’re not even thinking about how men might feel more comfortable working with another man and they might have fears working with women and so they might just think about it that way. 

And if you’re not consciously looking at that, if you’re not becoming aware of those feelings, those emotions, then I think it really can be very negative not only for you, but for the people that are around you. And you’re not trying to do this and you might even say, “it’s just, I click better with this person.” Because you feel more comfortable. We tend to feel more comfortable, more connected, with people who we think are in our “in” group. 

So what I mean by that is as we start to take on labels — so if I take on a label, I’ll use myself for example, I’m a Blazers fan. Games are starting back up, I’m really excited, but I often use team bias as a way of explaining it. And the same thing happens in politics. The same things happen even with Android and iPhone users. Like, you know I’ve made this decision to buy an iPhone and I have to kind of support and rationalize that decision and say, “it’s better than Android.” 

People don’t even realize sometimes that they’re doing that — I’ve done it before, so I know. (Well, I’m an Android user though, so.) 

There’s the “in” group and “out” group. So what happens with a team bias, I often call it as if I’m in a game and I’m watching the Blazers play. If the other team does a foul against my team in basketball, I’m going to be screaming and yelling like, “Hey call the foul,” right? But on the other side of the floor, when our team fouls their team and possibly gets away with it, I’m probably not going to be yelling and screaming that out because I have this association, this “in” group of my team. 

So what starts to happen is we could label ourselves based on race, based on gender, based on status, based on political parties, based on all these different things. And what happens is you start to feel more association with people that are in the “in” group. And part of the reason why we do this is because there can be safety in numbers. They can feel camaraderie in groups, you can feel like, “Hey, these people are like minded.” There’s all those kinds of different things. So there’s the “in” group, and then there’s the others, the “out” group.

What happens though, is our subconscious mind automatically labels and categorizes all these things to make it easier for us to access this information, to make quicker decisions and better survival, that’s kind of the way I looked at it, but if we’re not aware of that, this is where an implicit bias can then go to more of an explicit where it would be considered either racist or unlawful.

I associate myself as being a white and male — if I’m in that association and I have a black female, in my mind, I might associate differences. I might automatically start categorizing “well, okay, she’s female and she’s black and I’m thinking there’s differences here.” I’m starting to think about those kinds of things. 

So there’s a couple of different things. One is when you have these (and everyone has biases) it’s important to understand deeper and you start looking at, “do you have stereotypical biases? Where are you? Are you saying, “Oh, you know white men can’t jump, or white men can’t dance” that’s a stereotype. And I can dance, so I’m an exception to that rule. 

Most people that consider themselves good people that are ethical, believe we’re all egalitarian, that we believe in equality for everyone but sometimes what happens is your unconscious — and I’m not saying it’s just white people, anyone can have this, obviously. So you know, I want to make sure that we think about it from a comprehensive perspective, because this isn’t just about race. It’s not just about gender. It’s not just about orientation. It’s not just about attractiveness. There’s so many different ways we classify people — we can look at age, we can look at economic level or class.

Our Power, Our Freedom, and Our Growth

There’s all these different elements that I think are important that you examine your own unconscious biases to understand, and one of the ones I realized more so lately is probably my more typical unconscious bias tends to be more depending on someone’s dress. I think if someone looks like they’re homeless or something like that, I’m like “Ooh, steer kind of around that.” And it’s something I have realized more and examined more, and those are the things that you have to do on an ongoing basis.

I think what happens is this raising of awareness. One of my favorite quotes is from Victor Frankel and he says

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Most people, and you see it more so lately especially if you’re on social media, you probably get the feeling that if your worldview is coming from Facebook, then you’ve got a really distorted worldview. Obviously that’s only a sliver of things that are going on, but you start to see all these people sharing all this stuff, and you think that’s who they are. They’re prompted to share things that they’re disgusted with, so a lot of that stuff comes up and it’s really important. And people feel like they’re being bounced around like a pinball in a pinball machine because a lot of times whether it’s information that’s intentionally trying to sway people based on different narratives and all that kind of stuff to just standard everyday life and things that kinda come up that impact our emotions. But we have a choice to determine — one of the biggest, most powerful things is we have a choice to determine what the meaning is of something. And being able to determine what the meaning is of something allows us to choose our emotion around that.

And that’s where true freedom and true power lies. Otherwise you are controlled by your previous programming. You are at the mercy of all past programming that was given to you and you didn’t choose it. Maybe through parents, through other people, experiences that you went through, some that happened to you, some that you did, whatever it may be. So I think it’s important once you start to understand that true freedom lies between stimulus and response and understanding that the stimulus that comes, that you have the ability to be mindful in that moment and start to understand “what does this mean?” How are you examining that? If you keep diving deeper and think “what else could this mean?” Because a lot of times we will stress ourselves out, we will make bad decisions and do all these things because we’re making incorrect associations, or we’re determining something or reacting to something and saying that we determined emotion around it. 

A Better World Starts Within You

There is an old ancient practice — it’s so old, but I thought it was really cool — as I was starting to study it, I think it was Tibetan like way back that they did it. And it was kind of more mind training type stuff to understand what’s going on. It’s called sending and receiving or giving and taking. One of the things they looked at as being able to take negative, or what was considered negative, and being able to transform those things into positives in yourself, out in the world, was considered a very valuable thing. It was kind of a level of consciousness basically that you could reach that would basically give you the ability to, no matter what was thrown at you in life, no matter what was going on, that’s where you have the freedom is in your ability to choose how you respond and how you respond is going to be based on what it means to you. So really what that is is that between stimulus and response is understanding “what does this mean?”

Being able to choose the meaning and choose a meaning in a way that is beneficial, not only for you, hopefully, because you’re starting to get past that point, but for everyone, in an egalitarian way where we have true equality and we have true, genuine caring about other people in addition.

So anyway, I went a little bit deeper than what I probably needed to, but I hope that gives you a little more understanding as far as unconscious bias as well as just how our brain works on an ongoing basis and how we can be mindful in the moment. And we can better understand and be introspective within ourselves so that we can be better. We can be a better part, a better person for our families, for our communities, for society, and have a positive impact. 

So with that, I want to thank you. Bye!