Unconscious Bias: The Basis of Prejudice

“A group of teenagers that have had one drink too many speed past a stop sign, triggering a nearby cop car to chase after them. The group disregards the blazing lights and the sound of the police siren and continues on. Eventually, they get arrested and fined for drunk driving.”

Now, let me ask you a few questions. As you read this story, what gender did you imagine the teenagers were? What race? What gender and race did you picture for the cops? Did this incident happen during the day or night? None of these details were mentioned in the story, but your brain, like anybody’s, would have filled in these gaps based on past experiences and things you might have seen in the media. This is an example of what is called unconscious bias, and it is unknowingly the basis for racism and other prejudices around the globe.

Firstly, let’s discuss why bias seems to be such a natural inclination for us humans. Bias, despite its negative connotations, is actually a very helpful trait. For instance, think about our ancestors, prehistoric human beings out in the wilderness. They see an unknown creature out in the water well and, because of bias against something unfamiliar and unlike themselves, decide to back up and stay with each other (something familiar).  In that way, scientists believe we are wired to stay in what we believe is familiar and comfortable and hence display an unconscious bias to dissimilar groups.

Some of the many ways humans compartmentalize each other in their subconscious mind.

What can be difficult about this type of bias in our society is the fact that it happens subconsciously. Let’s take the Stroop test to demonstrate. Below, there is a short video showing you some words in different colors. Try to say out loud, the color of the word, and not the word itself.

The Stroop Test: Try to speak out loud the color of the words rather than what the words mean. This is a tug between the conscious and unconscious parts of the brain.

Prove difficult? Did you feel a strain between your conscious and unconscious mind? Trying to alter our involuntary thoughts and biases that have ingrained themselves over time can be tricky, but awareness is key. Now let’s look at a Yale study that depicts how unconscious bias can find itself in the workplace.

Moss-Racusin et al. 2012 assessed the different perceptions between men and women in the context of a job interview. For each round, acting participants – a man and a woman – individually pretended to interview for a job, with identical scripts. Despite nearly exact words, the man was perceived as confident and capable while the woman was taken to be aggressive and cocky. The man ended up getting the job despite identically scripted interviews! Check out the video here:

An exclusive video snippet courtesy of ABC News about the revealing study conducted by Moss-Racusin et al. 2012.

Another shocking study, this time about racism, was conducted by Goff et al. 2014. They assessed the differences between how Black children and White children. They found that Black boys, as young as 10 years old, are “unconsciously” seen as older and less innocent than White boys. They aren’t viewed in the general light of childhood and are expected to have higher levels of responsibility. Crazy, right? The researchers of the paper discuss how this corroborates with police brutality and racism against young Black people. 

“The evidence shows that perceptions of the essential nature of children can be affected by race, and for black children, this can mean they lose the protection afforded by assumed childhood innocence well before they become adults… With the average age overestimation for black boys exceeding four-and-a-half years, in some cases, black children may be viewed as adults when they are just 13 years old. “

said co-author of Goff et al. 2014, Dr. Matthew Jackson in an American Psychological Association article.

This article is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many, many problems with our society in terms of prejudice and bias against minority groups. The scary thing is, whether it is race, gender, age, sexuality, ethnicity, etc., bias can happen unintentionally and unconsciously. But this subconscious way of thinking and segregating people in our minds form the pillars holding up prejudice. And the wrecking ball to knock these pillars off? Awareness. Make an effort to learn more about these issues, try to catch yourself having a judgemental thought and creating bias, and apologize if you do. To get you started, here is a link to the Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT) for some introspective growth. 

What are your thoughts and experiences with bias? Any suggestions on how to combat unconscious bias? Let us know in the comments below!


Black Boys Viewed as Older, Less Innocent Than Whites, Research Finds. (2014). American Psychological Association. 

Goff, P. A., Jackson, M. C., Di Leone, B. A. L., Culotta, C. M., & DiTomasso, N. A. (2014). The essence of innocence: consequences of dehumanizing Black children. Journal of personality and social psychology, 106(4), 526.

Moss-Racusin, C. A., Dovidio, J. F., Brescoll, V. L., Graham, M. J., & Handelsman, J. (2012). Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. Proceedings of the national academy of sciences, 109(41), 16474-16479.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *