Before we dive into this topic, I’d like to take this time to conduct a brain exercise, three scenarios will be presented for you to visualize, the visualization aspect is very important so be sure to really focus on it.
- “You’re late to catch a flight, you rush through the airport, you make it past security, you make it past the gate, you manage to step into the plane as they begin closing the door behind you, and the pilot steps out of the cockpit to say hi.”
- “You then reach your destination, head out of the airport, hail a cab, proceed on your way to a restaurant, and on the way there you get into a conversation with the cab driver.”
- “You reach the restaurant, you sit at your table, you order and have the best meal you could imagine, and at the table next to you is a couple happily celebrating their anniversary.”
Now you should have a solid image of all of that; because I have some questions for you. In your mental image was the pilot black? Was the cab driver a woman? Was the married couple two men? It’s okay if one, or all of your answers, is no. This is because your brain creates images of what’s familiar based on your beliefs and judgements, in the same way, these biases tend to influence our decisions in our day-to-day work lives as well.
The human brain is complex and fascinating in its many intricacies, it deals with many advanced processes in a manner of seconds and thus sometimes takes shortcuts in certain areas. One such shortcut, which is the focus of this exploration, is the way in which the brain takes in the information that is around us. According to the Information theory popularized by Claude Shannon in 1940 (Markowsky 2017), we are constantly being flooded with up to 11 million pieces of information at any given time, however, the brain is only able to process about 50 of those pieces at a time, which is far less than even 1% of what we experience. If we were to experiences all these inputs at once we would most definitely be overwhelmed by the rush of information. This is where the brain takes a shortcut in order to manage the influx of information, the brain takes the liberty of filtering this information for us by looking for patterns and highlighting what it sees as the most important. This is why we don’t have to think too much about basic actions such as opening doors or walking, the downside to this is that it happens unconsciously and we wouldn’t even be aware of it. What all this means is that our decisions are sometimes made not by our rationalization, but by our preconceived notions based on past experiences.
One area in which this can be seen quite prominently is in the hiring practices of many companies. When looking over an individual’s resume, every single detail of the resume, not including skills can still be a deciding factor in whether you are in the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ pile. An address that indicates a long commute could put you in the no pile, an email address that doesn’t sound official can put you in the no pile, even a reputable college that can be perceived as not being a “pedigree school” by some can put you in the no pile. Then comes the next step, the phone interview, which some may think that there’s no way there can be any judgement because they can’t see your body language or appearance but this is not true because there can be unconscious bias based on your tone, pitch, and accent which can land you in the no pile based on the recruiters’ perceptions. Then comes the final step where appearances count, tattoos will put you in the no pile, colored hair will put you in the no pile, even your gender will put you in the no pile over someone else regardless of qualifications. These are all of course unconscious biases we may hold which leads to a common response to the question, “Why didn’t you hire this candidate?” being, “I can’t quite put my finger on it, it’s just a gut feeling.”
We all know the saying, “don’t judge a book by its cover” yet we find it hard to implement this into our daily lives, especially given how easy it is to actually look at a book cover and relate it to books we would have read in the past. So, it goes to show that just knowing about these unconscious biases is not enough to overcome them, we must strive to consider the decisions we’re making and look at things objectively. In the case of the previous examples given we should think to ourselves, “So what if the person has a long commute if they are willing to make it every day”, “So what if this person has tattoos if they have a strong work ethic and offer value to the company”. These kinds of questions challenge us to look past our own personal biases and perceptions about how the world works and helps us begin looking at what would benefit the company as a whole. This is where introspection really matters, it takes time to master these concepts and implement them effectively but with the proper training and practice, it is quite achievable in any workplace.
Markowsky, G. (2017, June 16). Information theory. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/science/information-theory