When you first meet someone, within fractions of a second, your brain has already created a series of unconscious biases and assumptions about this person that you’re not even aware of. These biases are now going to strongly affect your relationship and communication with this person and this behaviour will be 100% unconscious. These biases can shape either negatively or positively. Perhaps this person reminds you of your favourite aunt. Or maybe they remind you of your neighbour whose dog never stops barking. There are many people who view biases as being a negative aspect of the human brain, however having biases is what makes us human. To not have these would be completely unnatural. The true task is to understand our biases and be aware when they are happening.
However, before we discuss that, it’s important to understand where our biases come from. In our daily lives, we are constantly exposed to situations that are going to create biases in both a conscious and an unconscious way. These range from how we were raised, to the person who messed up our lunch order, to television & media. For example, the media plays a large role in the inputs that our brain receives. Magazines and tabloids tell women that they have to look a certain way and must have a husband or partner in order to be happy. They also tell men that they have to be strong and showing or expressing emotions will make them look weak. Continual exposure to these messages will affect our subconscious even though many of us like to think that it won’t.
In addition, our biases affect how we see the world. Many of us like to think (and need to think) that we see the world as it really is. However, we do not see things as they really are, we see things as we are. This means that our biases affect our interpretations based off the different experiences we have in life. In other words, we may all see how a tennis ball looks. However, our understanding of a tennis ball and all its various uses will not be the same.
It’s important to understand what effect our unconscious biases are going to have in our everyday lives. Perhaps, like our members at AceTech Ontario, you’re a leader at a technology company and you meet new people every day and have several business opportunities come your way. Your unconscious biases are going to affect who you hire, which idea you invest in and who you take Venture Capital from. What if our biases encourage us to make the wrong deal or hire the wrong candidate?
Metacognition, by Google’s definition, is the “awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes”. As mentioned earlier, to not have biases would be un-humanly (not to mention, impossible). However, we can work to understand our thought process better, even if we do not always know where our biases originate. This is the ability to observe ourselves from the outside and raise awareness of how we react in different situations. To do this, you must challenge your first impressions of people. Explore the situations that make you awkward or uncomfortable. Have a conversation with yourself about why you reacted in a certain way. It’s important to note that you cannot avoid the initial reaction, but you can check in with yourself later in order to be aware of a bias and explore it. Our emotional intelligence is a great tool to help us do this.
If you’re leading a team at a company, discuss with this them. You will be able to help members of your team uncover their own biases and they will be able to help each other do the same. Doing this will help you uncover the diversity of thought you have amongst your team and surrounding yourself with people who have different perspectives will only make your company more successful. As Fiona MacFarlane at Ernst & Young once said, “in a complete, knowledge – driven economy, there are no longer solutions to problems, there are perspectives on dilemmas”.