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Unconscious bias

Reviewed by therapist.com team

A woman thinking while working.

What Is Unconscious Bias?

Biases are assumptions for or against a person, group, or thing. They can cause positive or negative consequences in ways that are considered unfair. Unconscious biases can affect the way someone behaves and the decisions they make without them realizing it. 

There are two types of unconscious bias:

  • Cognitive bias: Cognitive biases affect how someone uses data and makes decisions. This is often the result of the brain trying to simplify information. Cognitive biases can occur due to selective memory and attention. 
  • Implicit bias: Implicit biases involve certain stereotypes about things such as race, gender, and sexuality. These are usually the result of someone unconsciously trying to find patterns to navigate the world more easily. Implicit biases can be influenced by someone’s upbringing, the media, and culture. 

Who Is Susceptible to Unconscious Bias?

Everyone is susceptible to unconscious bias. Unconscious biases may be easier to identify in others, but it is just as important to recognize how it affects one’s own thinking. 

Unconscious bias can exist in the workplace, the school system, the legal system, healthcare, and virtually all other aspects of life. 

What Causes Unconscious Bias?

Our brains are hardwired to recognize potential patterns and try applying them. This often happens without us consciously realizing it. 

Relying on patterns is an easier way of understanding a complex world. However, it’s not always accurate. When we overly rely on patterns, generalizations, or stereotypes, we develop unconscious biases that may not reflect our actual reality. 

Unconscious biases come from a variety of sources, including:

  • Predetermined worldview: If you have an overarching belief about how the world works, you will likely try to fit new evidence into that worldview, even if it is contradictory.
  • Cultural pressure: Every society perpetuates certain beliefs about what is acceptable or desirable and what is not. These biases can affect decision-making.
  • Childhood lessons: Unconscious biases are often taught explicitly or implicitly during childhood. Children’s brains are wired to learn about the world around them and trust the beliefs and behaviors modeled by their parents and other close adults.
  • Heightened emotions or trauma: Many people develop unconscious biases as a result of highly stressful or traumatic situations. These intense memories etch certain beliefs into our brains, such as how to ensure safety or determine who can be trusted.

Unconscious Bias Examples

An unconscious bias can sometimes involve a “gut feeling,” but is often difficult to detect because we don’t realize that we are making harmful assumptions. 

Some examples of cognitive biases include:

  • Dunning-Kruger effect: Believing that the less skills or knowledge you have, the more qualified you are
  • Hindsight bias: Convincing yourself you always knew how something was going to turn out
  • Self-serving bias: Taking personal credit for your victories but attributing your failures to external factors only

Some examples of implicit biases include:

  • Judging women and men based on traditional feminine and masculine assigned traits
  • Job applicants with anglicized names receiving better pre-interview impressions than applicants with names that appear to belong to different ethnic groups
  • Someone having friends who are all the same race as one’s own
  • Assuming a person’s sexuality and that heterosexuality is the default

What Is Cognitive Bias?

Cognitive bias involves the way we process information and data. It is an error in thinking as the brain tries to oversimplify information in a complicated world. These cognitive biases prevent us from being objective and logical, leading to poor judgment and decision-making. 

Common Types of Cognitive Bias

There are many different types of cognitive biases. Some of the most common are:

  • Anchoring bias: Clinging to the first piece of information found as the most important 
  • Attention bias: Paying attention only to certain things while ignoring others
  • Confirmation bias: Accepting information that backs up one’s current beliefs while rejecting information that goes against those beliefs.
  • False consensus bias: Thinking that everyone else holds the same beliefs
  • Halo effect: Having an overall impression of someone that is influenced by that person’s character
  • Misinformation bias: Having one’s memory of an event influenced by gaining more information after the original event

What Is Implicit Bias?

Implicit biases are unconscious stereotypes that occur about things like race, gender, and sexuality. Stereotyping is an unfair assumption that everyone with a certain characteristic is the same. Racism is a greater issue than the misapplication of implicit bias, but bias in general always plays a role in the discrimination and prejudices against marginalized groups. 

Implicit bias can lead to things such as: 

Implicit vs. Explicit Bias: What’s the Difference?

Implicit biases are unconscious attitudes towards certain individuals or groups that are involuntarily formed. Unlike implicit bias, explicit bias involves conscious prejudices that are intentional.

For example, someone may unconsciously gravitate toward people of the same race as them, showing an implicit bias. However, if someone consciously sees another race as a threat and uses hate speech toward them, this is an explicit bias.  

Microaggressions and Implicit Bias

Microaggressions are subtle actions or nonverbal statements that unintentionally discriminate against certain marginalized individuals. They are often based on implicit biases. For example, touching your Black coworker’s hair is a microaggression fueled by multiple implicit biases (that Black hair is exotic or abnormal, that it’s okay to objectify Black bodies and touch their hair without asking, that Black people don’t have the right to tell you no, etc).

Microaggressions are harmful even if they aren’t intentional. By identifying our implicit biases, we can begin to control them and avoid discriminatory behavior. 

How to Overcome Unconscious Bias

Challenge Your Assumptions

Unconscious biases can be difficult to catch because they occur to us automatically. However, to overcome unconscious bias, it’s important to begin challenging any assumptions. 

The key to challenging your assumptions is to slow down the movement between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Too often, what we think becomes what we feel, which informs how we act. 

Certain therapies, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), can help people learn how to slow down and identify what they’re feeling and the thoughts behind it. By getting curious about your own thoughts and feelings, you can explore alternatives, which can lead to choosing healthier behaviors. 

In the case of unconscious bias, our biases are often tied up in how we feel. By learning to recognize when we reach for our mental shortcuts and why, we can learn to choose more nuanced thoughts that lead to more just behaviors.

Seek Multiple Perspectives

It can be tempting to latch onto our first thought and familiar perspectives. However, overcoming unconscious bias requires looking at many perspectives. Next time you’re making a decision, try seeing the situation from another person’s point of view and imagining how they would respond. 

Consider Implicit Bias Training

Implicit bias can create harmful workplaces, school systems, and other social environments. Implicit bias tests and training can be used to reduce the risk for discrimination and prejudices. 

Seek Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of talk therapy that involves reshaping unhelpful or harmful thoughts into helpful ones. A therapist can use CBT to help someone overcome unconscious biases by helping them recognize potentially negative thoughts about certain individuals or groups, and consciously changing those thoughts. 

Overcoming unconscious biases can be challenging. A therapist can provide judgment-free support to help you or someone you care about begin to make more objective, thoughtful decisions to reduce unintentional discrimination. Check out therapists near you today.

About the author

The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.