We used to sing that we had “the whole world in our hands.” Turns out, we have the whole world in our brains. And not only the good stuff. We’re less the masters of our own destinies than we think.
TranscriptNo Offense, But Almost All Of You Are Racist
Many of us well-intentioned people assume that we don’t discriminate against others based on their race, gender, sexual orientation, age, etc.
And as far as conscious, intentional discrimination, that’s likely true.
But consider this: About three quarters of us more easily associate positive characteristics with white faces than black faces, more easily associate men with career and women with family, and fully 80% of us show a clear preference for young people over older people.
How do I know? Because for decades we’ve had validated assessments that enable us to measure so-called unconscious bias. That’s right, we can measure preferences of which we are not even aware!
The human brain is a marvel—it processes literally millions of bits of information every second. The world’s fastest super computers are orders of magnitude slower.
Most of that processing is done unconsciously, out of our awareness.
Every time we interact with someone, however, the brain’s associative machinery makes automatic, instantaneous inferences about them based upon their race, their age, the setting in which we’re interacting, the way they’re dressed, and on and on.
As a very simple example, we are more likely to assume that the woman wearing scrubs in the hospital is a nurse than a doctor because of our culture’s strong association between “doctor” and “male.”
We don’t consciously choose most of these associations: we absorb them from our surroundings during the course of our lives. In this way, for better or worse, our culture truly lives inside of us.
We assume we are steering our own course, in complete command of our actions. Captains of our ships.
But these unconscious associations are like an enormous sea upon which we travel, and their currents influence our decisions and our behavior.
Even the most well-intentioned among us can’t escape the influence of unconscious bias.
Next time I’ll discuss why this can be problematic for any organization, and what we can do about it.