When I was at University, I learnt about something called unconscious bias. It’s the idea that people unconsciously favour some people over others.
Psychology research shows that we tend to favour people who we think are similar to us. We might prefer people who are the same age as us, or people who go for the same sporting team. These people are part of our ‘in-group’.
But there are more serious things we can be unconsciously biased about too – like the colour of someone’s skin or their socioeconomic status. We can be unconsciously biased against someone who we think is different to us – in our ‘out-group’.
My little sister Ella has a disability – a rare genetic syndrome called Cornelia de Lange Syndrome (CdLS). When I was growing up, I didn’t see Ella as different to me. She was my sister – a part of my family. But once I started school, I realised that some of my friends were a bit scared of Ella. They’d ask me questions like “what’s wrong with your sister?”. I didn’t really understand what they meant.
When I got to University, and learnt about unconscious bias, I realised that Ella was in my friends’ ‘out-group’. They thought Ella was different from them. But I didn’t – Ella was in my in-group. Why was that the case?
The tricky thing about unconscious bias is that – well – it’s unconscious. We often don’t even realise we have these biases most of the time. Thankfully, University also taught me that we can change our unconscious biases. Someone can move from our ‘out-group’ to our ‘in-group’.
Studies have shown that if we spend more time with people who are in our ‘out-group’, even over the internet, we can change our unconscious bias against them.
It finally made sense why I didn’t have an unconscious bias against my sister Ella, or other people with disabilities. It was because I knew Ella. I saw all the ways she was similar to me, rather than all the ways she was different. She wasn’t scary – my friends just needed to get to know her better!
Unconscious bias doesn’t just affect people with disabilities. British research has shown that women are at higher risk of discrimination because of their weight than men; 80% of employers admitted to making hiring decisions based on people’s accents; and gay and lesbian job seekers were 5% less likely to get an interview for a job.*
It can be pretty difficult to recognise our own unconscious biases. But it’s good to be aware of them, and to always be thinking about ways we might be favouring our ‘in-group’ over others.
Ways we can fight against unconscious bias:
1. Check your internal dialogue
Are you making quick judgements in your head about someone? Are you making decisions based on the way you feel? Try to practice stopping yourself to think through the facts, not just the feelings you have about someone.
2. Don’t be exclusive
If you only spend time with people who look like you, or have similar experiences and interests to you, it reinforces unconscious bias. It’s important to spend time with lots of different people.
3. Stretch your comfort zone
If you feel uncomfortable about someone, or a group of people, make a conscious effort to learn more about them. Ask them questions. Don’t be afraid to question your own assumptions about them. Be open to change.
How are you going to start challenging your unconscious bias?
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