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Why unconscious bias training doesn’t work… and how to change it?


Unconscious bias has become a buzz word in recent times in many industries, especially in higher education, with unconscious bias training often seen as the silver bullet to all the equality and diversity issues. However, the latest CIPD report found that unconscious bias training has no sustainable impact on behaviour. So why should we even bother with it and how can we fix it?


What is unconscious bias?


Unconscious bias, as the name suggests can be understood as bias, prejudice, decisions and judgements that happen without us realising it. This is because our brain operates two systems – the conscious and the unconscious. The conscious part of our brain is the one responsible for critical thinking, assimilating or creating new knowledge and its effects is what we clearly see and think of as progress. The unconscious part of our brain is responsible for our fight-or-flight reactions, and serial, repetitive actions, a type of autopilot. It often dictates our decisions particularly under conditions of stress, e.g. pressure of time or when we are dealing with unclear instructions and are allowed to follow our “intuition”. Our unconscious brains make these snappy decisions based on societal norms without us even realising it, with our conscious brains then post-rationalising our “gut feeling” decisions. That’s why people who think that they are the most objective actually show most unconscious bias, as they are replicating the biases already existing in the society.


What’s the problem with the training?


There are three main issues with the training currently delivered in most organisations. Firstly, it usually focuses on the psychological mechanics of what happens in our brains to create unconscious bias. This raises the awareness of what unconscious bias is but does not provide any changes in and of itself. Secondly, its focus on the psychology leaves unchallenged the societal messages and norms that drive our snappy unconscious decisions. And thirdly, there is a misguided perception that solutions to unconscious bias should be at an individual level of being more aware of how not to jump into biased conclusions, shifting focus away from the organisational processes, procedure, practices and culture and placing it on individuals.


What works?


To address the first two drawbacks, unconscious bias training should have more of a sociological aspect. Once we accept that we are all prone to making snappy decisions before we realise it simply because of how our brains work, the next step is to think about what these unconscious decisions are informed by, i.e. what are the societal messages and discourses about ‘race’, gender, class, etc. that drive our unconscious thinking. For example, realising how deeply racialised our society is and how someone’s success is heavily dependent on ‘race’ should provide a convincing case for taking actions against this injustice.


To address the third drawback of unconscious bias training we have to realise that delivering unconscious bias training to random volunteers does not work! What works is delivering training within departments or by function (e.g. teaching staff) with people who can make changes to procedures being present in the room and committed to making these changes. In higher education, these changes need to be done through policies, procedure and practices - from recruitment to what and how we teach and what we recognise as knowledge and quality – which will allow for diverse people being more present in our organisations and for the stereotypes driving our unconscious biases diminishing through meaningful contact. Contact theory stipulates that only by meeting many people who we perceive as different will we change our perceptions of these people. In other words, frequent, meaningful contact will help rewire our brains to break down stereotypes. For example, meeting not one, not two but hundreds of disabled people we will realise (and re-wire our brains to think automatically) that they’re not “disabled people” who are all the same and different from us but they are simply people like us, individuals with their own unique lives, successes, and issues.


Therefore, any unconscious bias training which aims to make a real impact needs to cover both the psychological and societal aspects and concentrate on making changes to organisational procedures, instead of putting the burden on individuals. We need to first change the processes to allow more diverse people into our organisation to then help us change our attitudes, not the other way around.

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