Subconscious Bias: A Basic Understanding

The idea of bias, specifically subconscious bias, is an extremely difficult yet important concept to understand. Subconscious bias impacts the decisions we make daily. As teachers, it is imperative that we understand the basics of subconscious bias, and how to work against some of the more harmful effects it can bring.

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What is Bias

The definition of bias is generally the inclination to show favor or prejudice towards or against someone or something. For the purposes of this article, I will assume that you the reader are not outwardly biased or prejudice. However, you do have subconscious bias. This type of bias is much more challenging to deal with.

The difference between prejudice and subconscious bias is extremely important to note. Being prejudiced is a reflective choice that one makes, fully understanding the implications and impact of their actions. On the contrary, subconscious bias is not always recognized. Subconscious bias does not equal prejudice.

Subconscious bias is the result of thousands and thousands of years of humans categorizing basically everything in their lives. This has been extremely helpful in humans surviving weather, finding what food is good to eat, and avoiding deadly animals (“red touch yellow, you’re a dead fellow”). Humans have become so good at categorizing things in their lives that the process has become automatic.

Unfortunately, this method of categorization can become problematic. Small little details that might escape your conscious mind are stored away, only later to be brought back without you realizing it. This process is not really your fault – after all, it is the way we have evolved. However, it can still be harmful to others.

Imagine you are on a hiring committee for a teacher. Most of the teachers at your school are young, and most of the teachers you had growing up were young. The hiring committee has narrowed the search down to two candidates. The first is a young teacher who has been teaching only a few years. The second is an older teacher who has been teaching for decades.

If most of your experience in education has been with younger teachers, you may be subconsciously biased towards hiring the younger teacher, even if the older teacher is a better fit for the position. The challenging part of subconscious bias is that you might not even recognize it!

So Do I Have a Subconscious Bias

Yes, most certainly. Here is a (tragic) riddle that can be used as a test.

A man and his son get into a horrible car crash. The man dies within minutes, but the boy is able to survive long enough for an ambulance to arrive. They rush the boy to the hospital. The boy is in bad condition, and when they arrive at the hospital they rush the boy to emergency surgery. The surgeon arrives, takes one look at the boy and says, “I can’t operate on this boy, he is my son.” How is this possible?

The obvious answer (often in retrospect) is that the surgeon is the boy’s mother. While this riddle somewhat tricks us (with the continued use of the word “boy”), it does outline a subconscious bias that many of us have – that doctors are men.

Here is another test.

Imagine a lawyer. Imagine a doctor. Imagine an engineer. Imagine a firefighter. Imagine the winner of a lottery. Now, do any of these people share common traits? Are they men or women? Tall or short? Old, Middle-Aged, Young? Do they have lighter skin or darker skin? What language do they speak?

More than likely, many of the people you imagined were very similar. If you were like me when I first took this test, you imagined tall males who were middle-aged with lighter skin who spoke English. Why is this?

The reason for this is how our brain collects information. I grew up with network television in a small town in Wisconsin. Many of my experiences were very homogeneous (especially when it comes to skin tone), and that subconsciously shaped a part of my view of the world.

We walk around every day seeing ads, TV shows, books, and having personal interactions in our lives. Our brains collect this data so that later  when you read an article asking you to imagine a lawyer, it can spit out an image that is consistent with the data that has collected so far in your life.

What Are The Implications as an Educator

The implications here can be quite scary. We are educating hundreds of students a year, and potentially thousands or more in our lifetime. Yet we have this subconscious bias that is affecting our decisions, actions, and mannerisms based on potentially inaccurate data.

There are any number of ways this can go wrong. You may be subconsciously biased as you accept different students into your class after only seeing their names. You may be subconsciously biased in behavior management based on height, gender, or skin tone of the student. You may be subconsciously biased when calling home based on the language or dialect used by the parent on the other end of the line.

With the number of interactions teachers have every day, and the potential impact of these interactions on the lives of students, a realization dawns – there could be a problem here.

So What Can I Do

That was my first question after learning of subconscious bias. Unfortunately, there isn’t a great answer (yet) that solves this problem. However, there are two things that can help.

1-Recognize it. Try to be aware of your own subconscious bias. Check yourself as you react in different social situations, with or without students. Don’t let your first thought be your last. Think, reflect, then act. All of these statements have been used as suggestions to help fight against potentially harmful subconscious bias. You can also try to educate yourself more by tests like these, to help identify what types of negative subconscious bias you may have.

2-Experience more. Once you recognize a negative subconscious bias, go out and experience more that works against your bias. If you find you have a negative subconscious bias against elderly folks, go out and volunteer at an old folk’s home, or research one professional above the age of 60 every day. Often times subconscious bias arises because of faulty or small amounts of data. The more experience you have in that area means the more data your mind is collecting, which can work against harmful subconscious bias.

The more educators are able to learn about their own subconscious bias, the more they will be able to better serve the diverse population of students and families they teach.

I Want to Learn More

If you are interested at all in learning more about subconscious bias, I highly suggest reading Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People by Banaji and Greenwald.

Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People

The majority of this post came from the wisdom and knowledge within. This book is able to approach this (often) sensitive topic with candor and clarity. I cannot recommend this book enough, for further reading on this topic.

Dr. Sharroky Hollie’s Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Teaching and Learning resources also approach this topic very well, and from a slightly different place than Blindspot.

Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Teaching and Learning

He approaches the topic purely from a cultural sense (age, orientation, ethnic, etc.). Much of this post was also from the knowledge gained from his book and training.

Other Books to Read

Below are a few other books to check out regarding subconscious bias and teaching.

How our Brains Betray Us
Cognitive Biases in a Nutshell
Unconscious Bias Journal
Teaching Race: How to Help Students Unmask and Challenge Racism

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