Unconscious Bias and the Mind

Yesterday at the annual Learning Technologies and Skills conference, I chaired a session with Dr Tesia Marshik. She’s an educational psychologist and teaches at the University of Wisconsin, and she spoke about unconscious bias.

I first came across Tesia when I watched her TedX video about the myth of learning styles. So before I’d even met her she had won points with me, for delivering a talk on a topic which many L&Ders struggle with because it’s been ingrained into them. She’s not just touting her opinion on it either, she presents actual research about why we shouldn’t design learning solutions based on learning styles. Watch it here.

She started off her talk by sharing some well known visual illusions and how we either see the young woman or see the old lady and maybe see both.


And this one caused some fun too about whether the two halves are a different colour or the same. Not sure? Cover the middle and you’ll see they’re the same shade.


What she helped us realise with these is that the brain tries to make sense of the world in the best way it can. If it’s presented with too much information, we actually can’t process it all, so the brain forces us to use shortcuts to get to the ‘answer’ quickly.

With me so far?

What she started to explain about our biases was interesting too. She explained that in and of themselves, our biases aren’t wrong or unhelpful. They are our brains way of making mental short cuts to how we experience the world so that we can make decisions quickly and move on.

Our biases become problematic when they prevent us from being understanding of others and we use our biases to unduly influence our decision making.

Now it’s not just that our biases have a stronger influence over us than we may think. It’s also that our biases influence much of how we behave, the choices we make and the people we choose to be around. Our brains like us to feel safe, and through a barrage of information and education (from family, media, friends, loved ones, religion, and more) we learn what things are more likely to help us feel safe.

So what we do, on a very automatic basis, is seek to fulfil our lives with the very things, people, jobs, news and events that help us to continue to feel safe.

It’s not that we can’t choose to act, think or do differently – of course we can. But the path of least resistance is what we’re hardwired to do.

One of the main forms of bias that we are subject to – all by ourselves – is confirmation bias. It’s probably the most well known form of bias out there. It’s certainly a topic that gets raised in a lot of equality and diversity training. Essentially this bias says that we will actively seek out information that supports what we think and want to believe and equally actively seek to dismiss any information or evidence that may suggest otherwise.

For example, if I have a belief that medicinal science is doing more harm to humans than natural and organic methods of remedy, then no matter how much I may be presented with evidence to tell me that medicine is better, I won’t believe it. Instead I’ll be more likely to take anecdotal evidence and use this to confirm what I want to believe. (For the record, homeopathy has been proven to be incredibly ineffective as an alternative form of remedy.)

For many L&Ders, hearing that learning styles is nothing more than a myth will be hard to hear, even harder to understand, and may even be rejected. That’s confirmation bias at play right there. Not because you can point a figure and claim that, but because for many they’ve been taught that Learning Styles are a solid methodology for delivering effective learning solutions. The evidence, however solidly tells us this just isn’t the case.

So with all of the above, what does this mean for L&D?

Well I think it starts to help us better understand the human condition for one. When we develop courses and programmes on topics like Assertiveness or Having Difficult Conversations we can start to help people realise that they’re going to be facing many of their own biases because they’ve never been challenged before and that’s what the training is designed to raise awareness of.

I think it also starts to help us realise that when we try to implement change programmes of various sorts, we can start to understand why some people are at resistant to the change. The psychology of change tells us that people will fight it, and their biases are an important part of why that happens.

In talking with Martin Couzins after the session, his reflection was that as content curators we have to be mindful that we curate information from a range of sources and sometimes with alternative views so that people are presented with a balanced view and not just information or resources that support what we want to share or read about.

If you’ve read to the end of this post, I’d be really interested in knowing your reflections, either of the writing I’ve shared, of Dr Marshik’s insights, or even on her TedX video.

2 thoughts on “Unconscious Bias and the Mind

  1. Thanks for this post, and for encouraging people to reflect on their biases. I also find the topic very interesting, and can recommend Daniel Kahnemann & Dan Arielly if you want to pursue it further. Overall, it seems that we are not so much ‘thinking machines with a little bit of bias’ as ‘bias machines with a little bit of thinking’. We are designed to make instinctive, snap judgements in almost every context. We have a very limited ability to occasionally stop and think ‘was that really a good decision’ – and this ability is heavily influenced by fatigue, hunger, emotion and pressure. In thinking about how we help leaders with this we have suggested that it is not enough to be ‘aware’ of your biases – there may even be a ‘meta-bias’ in which people who think they are aware of their biases actually make more errors – you need to have systems in place to support your decision-making. This may be technology, or it may be a good team culture in which people feel able to challenge your decisions.

  2. The Foreign Office is pumping huge amounts of money into Unconscious Bias awareness for all senior staff. Apart from the obvious point on ‘sheep dip training’ and ‘action not attendance’ – the workshops are interesting as people get really hung up on the words Unconscious Bias. It sounds negative and people don’t want to accept that we all have biases and they are part of being human. Kahneman talks about employing system 2 thinking ie. taking time out to think about the decision.

    In this very very busy world – we must try to do it more often. And that doesn’t mean finding someone who’ll agree with you (confirmation bias) or expert (confidence bias)!

    Thanks for the read

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