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Can Unconscious Bias be Cured?

What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious biases are preferences we hold without being consciously aware of them. Also known as implicit biases, they can impact our decisions subconsciously.

An example of unconscious bias would be when given the choice between people of objective equal merit selecting a person due to unconscious racial or gender preferences. Another example would be wrongly associating people with negative attributes due to their age, sex or race.

Even if we try to avoid unconscious bias, it can influence our behaviour without us noticing. The Harvard study on implicit biases revealed that people often exhibit an unconscious preference for white faces over black faces and that 80% of us are biased against elderly people.

It now emerges that sleep, the time in which we strengthen the biases we learn whilst awake, could hold the key to unlearning our implicit biases. A study by Chicago’s Northwestern University set up conditioning exercises that actually helped participants counter subconscious gender and race bias.

Initially, participants had to move virtual objects on a computer screen until they found the corner in which they belonged and a sound that could be associated with that object was played. Their memory of where all the different objects should go was improved when the sounds were played to them in their sleep.

The method of playing distinct sounds during participants’ sleep was then used as a counter-bias training session. Sounds were played when the participants matched female faces with words linked to science and maths and when they matched black faces with pleasant words, in both cases training the mind to counter subconscious biases. Participants then had sound cues played to them when they reached deep sleep, which further decreased their implicit bias score.

Could this help managers to reduce sex and race discrimination in recruitment? A study from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed that when given the choice between hiring equally skilled male and female candidates to handle simple mathematical tasks, both male and female managers were more likely to select the male candidate.

Julie Morris, Employment Lawyer at Slater and Gordon said, “We know that some discrimination in the workplace is not intentional or consciously done, but stereotypes and biases prevail and have an impact on how people are treated at work. This study suggests that individuals and organisations may now be able to do more than simply raise awareness of bias in order to tackle it.”

If you need legal advice on employment law issues or have experienced sex discrimination in the workplace call Slater and Gordon Lawyers on freephone 0800 916 9060 or contact us online.

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