You are biased. And why you need to think about that.

Updated: May 12, 2021

In Los Angeles there is a Museum of Tolerance. There are two doors to the museum. One asks you to walk through it if you are prejudiced. The other asks you to walk through it if you are not prejudiced.

The ‘Not-prejudiced’ is always locked.

The truth is, whether we like it or not, we are prejudiced. It is hard-wired into our brains. Our distant ancestors needed it to make quick judgements in order to survive. Those who ran at the first sign of danger, or who didn’t eat the poisonous berries, passed these traits on through the generations. And although these quick judgements, made by our limbic system, were crucial for the progression and survival of early Homo sapiens, this response is not always so helpful or necessary today.

“The most fundamental bias is the bias that tells us we’re not biased.” Lee Ross

The first step in challenging our biases is to accept that we have them. In his audiobook series, Boot Camp for the Brain, Derren Brown, unpicks some of our unconscious biases and, with the help of other physiologists, helps us overcome them. In episode 7, he explores the biases that shape our way of seeing others. Amongst other things, he interviews a former BNP member who talks very earnestly about how his early racism went dangerously unchallenged and only after a particularly violent episode did he start questioning and challenging his beliefs. Prior to this, his biases were obvious and overtly dangerous but now he now works for an antiracism organisation, Hope Not Hate.

We recently undertook some unconscious bias training at work and were made aware of some cognitive biases that could affect our judgement. Some biases, that could potentially alter our relationships and behaviours around other people, include:

  • Confirmation bias: The confirmation bias is the tendency to listen more often to information that confirms our existing beliefs. Through this bias, people tend to favour information that reinforces the things they already think or believe.

  • The Halo Effect: The halo effect is the tendency for an initial impression of a person to influence what we think of them overall.

  • The Dunning-Kruger Effect: This bias can lead people to think they are smarter than they actually are, because they have reduced a complex idea to a simplistic understanding.

  • Anchoring bias: pertains to those who rely too heavily on the first piece of information they receive—an “anchoring” fact— and base all subsequent judgments or opinions on this fact.

If you want to look into the science and experiments that expose these biases, I would recommend the incredible Thinking, Fast and Slow, a best-selling book by Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences Daniel Kahnemann. It will change how you think. And if racial equality is on your agenda, then understanding and challenging your prejudices is a must.

In the aforementioned episode, Derren Brown talks to Dr Pragya Agarwal, who features regularly throughout the series. In this episode she talks a lot about her owns experiences of racism and makes reference to her book. In Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias, Dr Pragya Agarwal discusses the theories for why gender and racial biases exist. By better understanding them, we can better control and challenge them. People who are prejudiced towards someone because of their skin colour, their gender, or their sexuality, may do so under the pretence of superiority, but really they are just victim of their primordial brain’s unchallenged survival techniques. Or it may suggest that they are easily susceptible to other people's ideas. Biases, it seems, can be in-built or cultivated. Interestingly, as she says in the Derren Brown’s audiobook, developments in neuroscience suggest that we learn a lot of our prejudices through society and parents etc. For those biases we learn through life, as she perfectly points out: “If we can learn them, we can unlearn them as well.”


In a TED talk entitled 'How racial bias works - and how to disrupt it', psychologist Jennifer L. Eberhardt explores how our biases unfairly target black people at all levels of society. She talks about how her 5-year-old son, when pointing out the only black man on the plane, said 'He looks like Daddy' and 'I hope he doesn't rob the plane'. If a 5-year-old, innocent mind can casually relate black people with crime then we all can. Racial bias is present in all of us.

In her studies, collecting information from large data sets, she found that black people were twice as likely to receive the death penalty. Furthermore, the darker your skin colour, the stronger the correlation. She summarises that our biases allow us to make effortless choices, or, as she calls them: 'Friction-free'. What we need to do is add friction and slow down. Can we implement extra questions or extra choices that deepen our understanding and challenge any racial profiling? Can a teacher who gives a black kid a detention ask if they would have treated a white kid the same? Can a police officer ask if a stop-and-search is intelligence-led?

Perhaps by slowing down and adding friction points, we can prevent some of the following clear displays of our biases at play:

Our biases can affect the livelihoods, and potentially even the lives, of black people.

Considering all of this, what is clear is that we are more likely to resort to stereotyping if we are pressured or if we do not challenge them. Agarwal writes in her book that “Empirical evidence has shown that neural zones that respond to stereotypes include the amygdala, the prefrontal cortex, the posterior cingulate and the anterior temporal cortex, and they are described as all ‘lighting up like a Christmas tree’ when stereotypes are activated.” We must acknowledge this and try to better to understand it.

We must get better at slowing down and analysing. We must get better and discussing, sharing, being honest and being vulnerable. What is remarkable, but altogether unsurprising, is that the chap we talked about, above, admitted he never worked with people of colour when he was a younger. It was when he worked with Vietnamese people in Australia and listened to their stories, when he saw how hard they worked, when he thought about the bravery of migrants, and when he tried to understand how migration works, that he really thought about his biases.

He stopped. He listened. Not only to others, but to himself.

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