You’re walking into a business meeting. Going in, you know that you’ll be meeting with an executive and that person’s assistant but don’t know either one’s name or appearance. When you open the door and see a male and a female, what are your assumptions? Is your first reaction to assume that the male is the executive? What if one individual is white and the other a person of color?
All of us have thoughts below our conscious mind that influence our actions. This isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, being able to do things on autopilot often benefits us because we have very limited resources for our conscious mind. For instance, if we switch to autopilot to do something we’ve done a thousand times, say, loading the dishwasher, we free up our minds to think about something else.
However, such automaticity of thinking can cause problems, especially when it comes to biases toward those who have been disadvantaged because of race, gender, or other factors. If we let these unconscious biases influence our behavior, we inadvertently continue to disadvantage others and sometimes ourselves, even if we consciously reject these biases.
For instance, while nearly everyone repudiates the notion that one race is superior to another, studies indicate that our unconscious biases influence our behavior toward people we identify as belonging to certain races. While we have good intentions, our unconscious biases can steer our actions to discriminate.
In the case of race, one study showed that car dealers in Chicago would quote much lower prices to white men versus black men despite both groups using the same scripted strategies. Another study showed that with otherwise-identical resumes, the ones submitted that had “white” names were 50% more likely to receive a callback for an interview than those that had “black” names. While the car dealers and employers presumably had no conscious intention to discriminate, their biases hidden in their unconscious caused them to discriminate on the basis of race.
Worse yet, these biases can show themselves most when we have to make snap decisions. One replicated study showed that participants in a video-game simulation who were asked to shoot at people with guns were more likely to shoot black people, even those who did not have guns.
None of us need to feel guilt, fear, or anger about this issue. All of us have these unconscious biases, and we inherited them from our culture through no fault of our own. These biases were passed on to us through the explicit and implicit messages we received as children from sources we trusted, likely well-meaning but still biased people. (If you would like to explore potential biases in your unconscious, try taking a Harvard-designed IAT, or implicit association test.)
For decades, employers have used diversity training as a way to mitigate biases and increase the diversity of their companies. Recently published research in Harvard Business Review indicates that not only are the traditional strategies ineffective, they actually reduce diversity.
Researchers at Harvard found that using grievance systems for lodging complaints of discrimination, providing tests for applicants, and implementing mandatory diversity training have all diminished diversity. Grievance systems lead to retaliation. In the instance of testing applicants, researchers discovered that managers would not test all applicants and would sometimes disregard unfavorable results for those belonging to groups that hold more power.
Similar to the car-buying study, the hiring managers were not motivated by biases on a conscious level, but their unconscious bias nevertheless resulted in unfair practices that further disadvantaged people from groups with less power.
Practicing mindfulness can make us aware of our hidden assumptions. Mindfulness is nothing more than being present, paying attention on purpose, and not judging. Mindfulness is about waking up to our present experience and being aware of our own thoughts, thereby making the unconscious conscious.
In the example of trying to determine who is the executive and who is the assistant when you walk into the meeting, the practice of mindfulness can make you more aware of your thoughts and actions before you address the two people for the first time. Once you’re aware of your underlying assumptions, you can make a choice to change your behavior and greet both individuals at the same time instead of singling out the one you assume to be “in charge.”
One academic study validates this approach, finding that greater awareness mitigates our unconscious biases. Researchers tested two groups of white college students on their racial and age-based biases using an IAT. Before taking the test, one group listened to a history lesson while the other did a brief mindfulness practice. The group that practiced mindfulness demonstrated significantly less bias despite the fact that the practice didn’t concentrate on the biases themselves.
Practicing mindfulness exposes us to our own unconscious minds by cultivating self-awareness. By exposing our hidden biases, practicing mindfulness gives us the chance to change destructive, unfair beliefs. Although it is not the whole solution to addressing biases, practicing mindfulness provides an effective starting point.
While we are not responsible for having unconscious biases, we are responsible for doing something about them to make our world a safer, more prosperous world for all of us.