What Is Unconscious Bias? (With Examples)

By Chris Kolmar - Jan. 22, 2021
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No matter how open-minded we are towards others, as humans, we’re always prone to developing unconscious biases that shape how we view the world and other individuals.

These unconscious biases can manifest into many negative patterns in the workplace, such as accidental stereotyping and discrimination.

For these reasons, it’s extremely critical to learn how to identify any unconscious biases we may hold and tackle them.

This article will explain precisely what unconscious bias is and provide you with common types and examples. You’ll also learn some useful tips to identify and reduce them.

What Is Unconscious Bias?

Biases are stereotypes that individuals, groups, or institutions hold regarding other individuals, groups, or institutions.

These are often harmful or considered to be unfair, especially when concerning characteristics such as:

Although most of us are already aware of and condemn conscious biases, we may hold unconscious biases and not even know it.

Unconscious biases are formed because our human brains are prone to making broad characterizations and assumptions about the world and other people.

These unconscious beliefs can be especially dangerous because they’re often far more prevalent and harder to detect than conscious ones.

They may even run counter to our conscious beliefs and values, subtly influencing our thoughts and behaviors.

Unconscious biases aren’t always social biases that deal with an individual’s ethnicity or gender.

They can also be ones that shape our broad understanding and way of navigating the world, such as affinity and confirmation bias.

The common feature of all unconscious biases is that they tend to not accurately represent reality. The result in the workplace is inefficient, discriminatory, or otherwise harmful behaviors.

The Negative Effects of Unconscious Bias

Unconscious biases can harm your:

  • Colleagues. Whether you’re a supervisor with hiring authority or an employee, unconscious biases can negatively impact your co-workers and your working relationships with them.

    These biases can result in accidental discrimination or stereotypes that harm your colleague’s opportunities or feelings.

    This may make it harder to work with them on projects even if they don’t out-right avoid you.

    It can also create a hostile or uncomfortable work environment for them.

    Out of respect for those you work with, it’s essential to identify unconscious biases before they manifest into harmful unintended behaviors or words.

  • Career. Your reputation may become permanently damaged if you accidentally stereotype or discriminate against a co-worker.

    Even if you didn’t mean harm, it’ll be an uphill battle to right the situation and make amends. It’s best to avoid such scenarios in the first place.

    Non-social unconscious biases such as confirmation biases can also harm your career, as they can lead to inefficient decisions.

  • Company. In addition to harming your company’s reputation, unconscious biases can lead to poor hiring and other business decisions.

    You want to ensure that you hire the most qualified employees or assign them to the best-fit positions and duties.

    Unconscious biases can cloud these decisions and cost both you and qualified candidates valuable opportunities.

12 Examples of Unconscious Bias

Here are several major unconscious biases that may be subtly influencing your thoughts and decisions in the workplace:

  1. Confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the inclination to only consider data that agrees with our pre-existing beliefs when drawing conclusions.

    For example, a hiring manager may hold the belief that only candidates from a particular part of the country are qualified to perform a job.

    This belief is reinforced by all the successful workers they employ from that region. However, they simultaneously ignore the success of employees from completely different regions.

    This confirmation bias strongly harms the hiring manager’s ability to hire qualified applicants.

  2. Attribution bias. Attribution bias occurs when an individual quickly assumes a causative link between another person’s characteristics and behaviors.

    A typical example is an employee arriving late to work.

    While a pattern of chronic tardiness certainly indicates a lack of work ethic in an individual, a single incident could be due to a number of valid reasons. Perhaps there was a traffic jam or emergency.

    A supervisor with attribution bias would nevertheless instantly attribute the employee’s tardiness to laziness. This bias could lead to the company losing a perfectly qualified employee if they’re fired for this incident.

  3. Conformity bias. Also known as peer pressure, conformity bias is the tendency to adopt the views and behaviors of those around us, even if they run counter to how we would act as individuals.

    This bias is why even massive organizations with numerous decision-makers who have veto power sometimes make poor choices.

    Once the crowd adopts an opinion, it can be difficult for individuals to speak out against it.

    This isn’t just due to fear of disapproval from the crowd, but also self-doubt. “If so many of my peers believe differently, then how could I possibly be correct?” is a common line of thinking.

  4. The halo effect. The halo effect is the inclination to place an individual on a pedestal after learning something impressive about them.

    We all have different values and characteristics that we consider impressive. Perhaps we hold graduates of a certain school to high esteem, or people with good looks.

    The halo effect can be dangerously blinding during the hiring process. It can cause hiring managers to disproportionately focus on certain aspects of a candidate while ignoring equally important ones.

  5. The horns effect. The horns effect is the exact opposite of the halo effect. If we learn something about an individual that we personally dislike, it might influence all our interactions with them moving forward.

    This effect is especially harmful when that perceived negative characteristic is trivial, such as their employment or schooling at an institution we dislike.

    Imagine how this bias could disastrously affect your company’s hiring process or delegation of duties. You want all applicants to be thoroughly assessed before hired or rejected, rather than disproportionately judged based on one or two things.

  6. Affinity bias. When we meet someone we share similar experiences and interests with, we’re much more likely to hold them in high esteem.

    Of course, this isn’t inherently harmful and is just part of being human. However, this affinity we hold for a particular individual shouldn’t be the primary deciding factor in our workplace decisions.

    A hiring manager who only employs candidates they relate to risks creating a team that isn’t diversified in opinions and backgrounds.

  7. The contrast effect. This bias describes our tendency to judge individuals in comparison with others rather than in a vacuum.

    For example, suppose that you’re parsing through a stack of resumes to assess candidates.

    If you read an especially disastrous resume, the contrast effect may cause you to see the next resume in a better light than you would have otherwise.

    An especially impressive resume may make the next candidate seem mediocre, even if they’re perfectly qualified as well.

    It’s crucial to tackle the contrast effect so that you can accurately assess all aspects of your business, not just potential employees.

  8. Gender bias. Gender bias is the tendency not only to prefer one gender over another, but to hold certain beliefs and stereotypes about gender.

    Many studies show that both men and women prefer to hire male job candidates. However, when the candidate’s gender is obscured, these disparities disappear.

    This indicates that gender alone is impacting the decisions of many hiring managers above even their qualifications.

    Reducing gender bias is critical to ensuring that you employ the right people for your company.

  9. Ageism. Ageism causes us to have negative feelings about an individual based solely on their age. This bias tends to older professionals more than younger ones.

    58% of workers start noticing ageism once they enter their 50s.

    Although young talent is certainly important to have in your organization, ageism may prevent you from hiring qualified candidates with extensive experience and expertise.

  10. Name bias. This bias describes the tendency to prefer or judge individuals with certain types of names.

    Many hiring managers associate certain names with different races and personalities, affecting who they decide to interview or hire.

  11. Beauty bias. Beauty bias is simply the tendency to believe that an individual’s looks indicate something about their abilities and competence.

    Many studies show that when all other factors are controlled for, such as education and other qualifications, traditionally attractive men and women are much more likely to be hired for the same jobs.

    If you have an unconscious beauty bias, you may be turning down more qualified candidates in favor of less qualified ones.

  12. Height bias. Height bias is an extension of beauty bias. It’s the inclination to judge people based on how much shorter and taller they are than others.

    It’s important to hire people based on their qualifications and ability to fit into the company’s culture and work environment, rather than arbitrary characteristics.

How to Reduce Unconscious Biases in the Workplace

It can be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to completely eliminate all unconscious biases in the workplace.

However, you can use a variety of strategies that are proven to at least effectively mitigate them.

Here are some of the most important ones:

  • Omit personal information from job applications. This strategy is a straightforward way to reduce the impact of name bias on the hiring process.

    One way to do this to assign candidates numbers or omit their names until they’re brought into the interview.

    This allows hiring teams to fairly assess an applicant’s qualifications without being potentially influenced by arbitrary factors.

  • Conduct blind interviews. It’s useful to first interview applicants by phone before meeting them in person or through video.

    Your first impression of each candidate will be based on their qualifications rather than aspects such as their physical appearance.

  • Educate employees. Many unconscious biases form and grow because individuals are unaware that they hold them.

    Train your team members to understand that issues such as the contrast effect and ageism exist. This helps them identify when they fall victim to these biases and correct the problem.

  • Self-reflection. This habit may be challenging to encourage in others, but we can at least practice and adopt it.

    If you identify a bias you hold, ask yourself and deeply consider where it’s coming from. Maybe it’s due to misconceptions about the world or experiences you’ve had.

    In whatever case, identifying the root cause of our biases is the first step to tackling them.

  • Give team members opportunities to express individual opinions. This strategy is the key to fighting conformity bias.

    Before asking a hiring team or project team to make an important decision, have they all write down their individual opinions.

    This helps reduce peer pressure and avoid the hazards of conformity bias.

  • Communicate rather than assume. If your employees make a mistake, communicate with them and learn what happened before making assumptions.

    You can learn whether their mistakes were due to legitimate reasons or incompetence, allowing you to determine the right course of action to take moving forward.

    Without communication, attribution bias may influence you to unfairly discipline team members. This could impact their morale and future performance.

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Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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