News & Perspectives

The Fish Doesn’t Know it’s Wet

The Fish Doesn’t Know it’s Wet

Unconscious bias and decision making
Perspective// Posted by: Christine Mason / 18 Aug 2015
Unconscious bias and decision making

Human beings are consistently, routinely, and profoundly biased. We not only are profoundly biased, but we also almost never know we are being biased.

– Howard J. Ross, Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Lives

“We almost never know we are biased.” Diversity trainer and author Howard Ross’ assertion is supported by the massive, multiyear Project Implicit at Harvard University. Implicit uses response latency to measure autonomic bias. Images, interspersed with positive or negative keywords, are shown on screen, and reaction times measured. The bigger the difference in reaction times between 2 paired groups, the greater the person’s implicit bias is.

More than 1.5 million people have taken the tests at Implicit. The tests are online, which means the sample skews toward educated, digitally enabled people. Still, the results are astonishing: whether on race, gender, nationality, religious affiliation or weight — our minds have made themselves up before we even consciously register a thought. And it’s pervasive – in every state, every political group, and every economic and age group. The lowest autonomic bias score by state in the US was 37%. That is to say, in 37% of interactions, we have an automatic embedded preference.

Our minds have made themselves up before we even consciously register a thought.

It’s these implicit biases that lead to micro-inequities, prejudices, or jumping to false conclusions on market data or aesthetic values. They are part of a larger set of mind tricks called cognitive biases, where what we see or encounter is judged according to our prior experience of it, and our own values. We see through our own lenses by default — to get the full, and therefore more accurate picture, we have to see through the lens of others.

We make suboptimal decisions when we allow our unconscious biases to run the show uninterrupted. The counter to unconscious bias seems to be neutralization through exposure — seeing and experiencing many things that run counter to previous programming. That takes conscious effort.

“I am biased. I am very likely wrong or incomplete in my understanding. Therefore, I actively look for more data through new experiences and other forms of inquiry, personally and professionally. When I find I have a bias, I will deliberately create first hand experiences where these biases can be challenged.”

Christine Mason
Christine maps new markets for emerging technologies, scouts for strategic expansion opportunities, and guides internal innovation strategies for leading companies.