An old Chinese proverb says that a fish is the last one to know what water is. The fish swims and breathes in water. While water is essential for its life, the fish is oblivious of that fact, taking its environment for granted. But more than this, water shapes a fish’s entire life. Unconscious bias works in a similar manner. Unconscious bias is the tendency each individual has to privilege certain people and ideas and to dismiss others. Bias unconsciously shapes our lives and decision-making and limits our choices in three ways. First, it limits the scope of choices we have by confining us to what is comfortable and reinforcing an unwillingness to consider alternate options. Second, it hampers the clarity we need for making decisions by clouding our thinking and introducing irrelevant constraints. Third, unconscious bias undermines the values we hold dear as it works against our conscious belief systems and privileges compromise.
Bias limits our range of choices.
Unconscious bias limits our scope or range of choices by confining us to the comfortable. Choices are so much easier to make when we stay within the boundaries of what is familiar. Our individual “comfort zones” are broadly made up of the people we identify with plus the ideas we consider acceptable. The people we associate with and the ideas we align with are, in turn, largely determined by our biases which are formed unconsciously and to which we pay little if no attention – until someone or some life event challenges them.
Because challenges ask us to step outside these parameters and become uncomfortable, we are less willing to consider options that are new or different. In this way our choices are narrowed back to the known and secure. For the most part, the thought processes that determine whether we consider the new or stay with the comfortable are unconscious and rarely questioned.
Bias hampers our clarity.
Bias also hampers our clarity in decision-making because it clouds our thinking. We believe that we see things clearly, and that we are objectively open to all available options. However, we all wear lens of various shades. These different hues form from our life experiences, what we learnt as children, and our cultures. Just as person born with poor eyesight is unaware that they don’t see clearly until they get a set of glasses, so our biases unconsciously cloud our ability to make clear decisions. We are unaware that we do not see things clearly.
One of the chief ways this “blindness” happens is that biases introduce irrelevant constraints. These constraints may be a person’s nationality, language or faith background, or gender. These factors are not necessarily bars to someone’s ability to do a job but unconscious bias, based on externals rather than looking at all that a person or option has to offer, means that our decision-making abilities are hampered.
Bias undermines our values.
Finally, unconscious bias undermines our cherished values by working against our conscious belief systems. Working on Nauru with asylum seekers was when I first became aware of the “water” I was swimming in. I realised that I had a subtle fear of these men with different skin colour, faith and language to myself – a latent racism made itself known to a woman who would have said she didn’t have a racist bone in her body. When bias from our “water” remains unexamined, we can compromise our values. We choose the easier route over the one that aligns with our values and challenges how we see ourselves. We stay within our comfortable boundaries rather than taking an active step out into the unknown. As I confronted my latent racist bias, I learnt to embrace difference, seeing it as an asset rather than a threat.
Unconscious bias is such a restrictive force in all our lives. It limits the scope of our choices, hampers the clarity with which we make decisions and undermines the values we hold dear. However, once we’re aware of the water we swim in, we can choose to leave it behind. What are some ways you’ve found for addressing your biases, and leaving your “water’ behind?