Training Your Mind: Unconscious Bias

What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias is learned social stereotypes that reside in our subconscious mind. They influence daily decisions in our lives, like where we live, the friends we make, or the people we hang out with without our realizing.

Unconscious Bias

Unconscious biases stem from the experiences we gain throughout our life. Our minds, trained by unconscious biases, look at skin color, body type, sexuality, religion, social prominence, career choice etc. before creating real relationships with people.

In our conscious thought process, we believe that we are liberal or moderate. We believe that we respect other cultures and their values. We also believe that we respect all women and strongly oppose gender discrimination. We are surprised when we see that the studies still show gender discrimination and pay gap. We are outraged when we hear about unfair treatment of certain ethnic or racial groups like, African Americans or Hispanics or Asian Americans or Native Americans and the brutality that they face. We want to stand side by side with them and end it all. We all want to do the right thing and make this world a better place for ourselves and for future generations. So why after all these years and efforts do we still see gender discrimination and racial injustice?

Why Is Recognizing Our Own Unconscious Biases Difficult?

Recognizing our own unconscious biases is difficult because most of the time they are completely opposite to our conscious thought process. Unconscious biases are based on social stereotyping. The prevalence of these social stereotypes is very subtle in our day to day life; from calling your dad when you need financial advice, to TV shows using brown male actors to play doctors, to major companies training their artificial intelligence (AI) software using images of white men. There is no conscious ill intent in any of these decisions, everyone is doing what is generally accepted or expected.

A study from Yale University’s science department found that the gender bias against female scientists exists in both female and male faculty. Being a female scientist is an act of feminism in itself then how could female scientists unconsciously be biased against female students? 

A few years ago my daughter asked me to review her paper on Unconscious Bias and Stereotyping. While reading her paper, I realized how much influence unconscious bias and male stereotyping had on my decisions when I was growing up. While growing up, being a girl, I “rebelled” by keeping my hair short and refusing to learn classical dance or playing with dolls. I chose the STEM path and built my career in IT. My whole rebellion was based on the unconscious bias that women are weak and men are strong, that men have careers, and are more respected. To be considered strong and be respected, I unconsciously mimicked male stereotypes. I was horrified at the realization that even though I have been a feminist my whole life, I had made some decisions based on unconscious bias and male stereotyping without realizing it. This is when I fully accepted how imperfect I was and started being more mindful about my thoughts and reactions to daily events.

How Are Unconscious Biases Affecting Our Future?

The impact of the unconscious biases is now also seeping into the technology we are building, the technology that is quickly becoming the foundation for our future generations. For example, we are now using Artificial Intelligence (AI) daily in our lives, from using facial recognition in Google Photos, to Facebook auto tagging features, to auto driving cars, without thinking about how these systems are trained to build their algorithms. One recent study shows that auto driving cars show higher error rates in recognizing pedestrians with darker skin tones. According to the Washington Post Article, a major federal study released in December 2019, shows that the rapidly deploying face recognition systems used in law enforcement in the US is up to 100 times more likely to misidentify people of Asian or African American descent. As a social norm, we are used to seeing images of younger white male more often compared to other races or genders in the media. This may have resulted in unconscious decisions to test the AI on images of younger white men.  

The longer these biases stay unrecognized, the deeper their roots grow and stronger the stereotypes become.

Unconscious Bias and Self-Acceptance

Recognizing our own unconscious biases is a vital step towards self-acceptance. It can help us understand how many of our thoughts are our own. It can also help us understand the amount of unconscious influence society has on our decisions. Most importantly, recognizing our unconscious biases opens up our mind to be the best version of ourselves.

Recognizing our unconscious biases opens up our mind to be the best version of ourselves!

Recognizing our unconscious biases can start with observing our reactions to different events in personal life or communities or the world.

When you hear a crime report or hear about drug use in high school, what is the first thought that crosses your mind or first image that pops up in your mind? When someone is talking about a new CEO of General Motors (GM) or Google what image comes up? When you first heard the name Indra Nooyi, the CEO of Pepsi, what did you assume the gender would be? When you hear the words Middle East what image comes to your mind? When you hear about a teenage pregnancy in your child’s school what was your first assumption about the ethnicity and financial situation of that teenager? When you hear about a drive by shooting what do you think who the victim and perpetrator would be?

As we start observing our reactions and thoughts, it is important to remind ourselves that we are human and not perfect. One of the goals of training our mind is to help us be more aware of our unconscious thoughts. Remember to be kind and non-judgmental when you observe your reactions to the events around you.


  • Mala

    It seems to me that in real situations it is challenging to be aware of a bias., e.g. if I see a temple & think about peace, is it bias ? If I meet a person who is known for being funny & I start laughing on meeting him/her, is it bias ? If a person had been rude to me in the past , and I donot smile when we next meet, is it bias ? If I meet a person who is dressed raggedy, looks dirty, is not walking properly and I instantly distrust him, is it bias ?

    • First, my apologies for a late reply. I was taking a small break from writing as part of my self-care process.

      These are excellent questions! My answer to all of these questions is “yes”, they are all biases. As part of this journey of training our minds, we are only trying to recognize that there is a bias based on our experiences or social conditioning. We are not judging whether it is good or bad. Some social conditioning is good for the society like being polite to people or being respectful or elders or other religions while other is not.

      As we become more aware of different unconscious biases, it does two important things, 1) It helps us understand ourselves more and 2) It gives us freedom to choose what we agree with and what we don’t without worrying about social norms!

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