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11 min read

The science and psychology of unconscious bias

The Science and Psychology of Unconscious Bias 

The long road to corporate cohesion

As global organisations push towards greater efforts to diversify their workforces and create cultures of inclusion and belonging, evidence suggests that the pace of change remains painfully slow.

As stated within the 2023 Parker Review of the UK’s FTSE 100, only 18% of director positions are held by directors from a minority ethnic group. Of the FTSE 250, ethnic minority directors made up 67% of directors. However, only 28 FTSE 250 companies had two or more minority ethnic directors.

In relation to gender, UK business have made some progress, particularly at executive committee level. The number of women in the combined executive committee and direct reports stands at 34.3%. In the FTSE 250, women make up 33% of combined executive committee and direct reports. (Source: Deloitte)

In the US, women leaders make up about 10% of Fortune 500 companies. The are eight Black CEOs and only one Black female CEO – Rosalind “Roz” Brewer – who became CEO of Walgreens in March 2021.

While progress is being made, and global corporates continue to make efforts to drive diversity in hiring and in promotions, it’s clear that the pace of change remains slow. There are many structural barriers that impede women and other diversity groups from entering and progressing in corporate life, but the science of psychology tell us that unconscious bias remains a critical blocker in making fair and inclusive decisions. 

The psychology of bias

Behavioural psychologists such as Daniel Kahneman suggest that a person’s ability to navigate complex thinking and decision-making is hampered by a set of cognitive biases. Social psychology and neuroscience tell us that we human beings depend on a dual processing system for thinking and decision-making.

System 1 – which Kahneman refers to as fast thinking – is governed by emotion, intuition and impulse.

System 2 – referred to as slow thinking – is partly designed to regulate the impulsive nature of System 1 and is governed by logic and deliberation.

The evolution of human decision-making is related to risk and safety. To survive, human beings often had to make fast decisions within a limited time frame. To help us to do this, we have developed a complex process of neuro networks that rely on pattern recognition or heuristics. These heuristics, or mental short-cuts, help corporate citizens – hiring managers, people managers and executives – to make decisions based on previous experience and can be effective when developing strategic goals. However, as stressed by Andrew Campbell, Director of Ashridge Strategic Management Centre, the heuristics on which leaders and others rely, are prone to a set of cognitive biases, which in turn lead to errors in thinking, judgement, and decision-making. It is these errors of thinking that continue to stifle diversity efforts.

Three common biases that impact hiring decisions

  • Affinity bias: This is the tendency to hire people who are ‘like us’. This could relate to in-group bias - having more affinity with members of our own social groups - based on factors such as gender, ethnicity, social class and background. More research suggests that affinity bias has a much wider impact than other types of bias, affecting likeability and our perceptions of candidate competencies based on a much wider set of assumptions or heuristics. Associations based on appearance, educational background, regional accent and work history, all influence, even if at a micro-level, our ultimate decision of who we hire.
  • Confirmation bias: This is the tendency to seek information that confirms our existing perceptions and viewpoints. The first impression of a candidate is often formed by reading their CV or reviewing their social media and LinkedIn profile. Once formed, these impressions govern future interactions, impressions, and decisions. In a selection and interview context, hiring managers will too often be governed, unconsciously, by these first impressions. Confirmation bias works by often leading us to ignore future information that counters our first impressions. For candidates with high levels of similarity to the corporate culture, confirmation bias works to their advantage; for candidates with lower levels of similarity, confirmation bias will have a greater negative impact on their hiring chances.
  • Anchoring: This is the tendency to rely heavily on first impressions when making a decision. Once the anchor has been set, other judgments are made by adjusting away from that anchor without taking into consideration other viewpoints; in a hiring context the anchor is often set by the skills of existing employees and wider cultural norms. Corporate decision-makers too often look for candidates who will ‘fit into’ existing work patterns and styles and working. This clearly has negative implications when seeking to hire diverse candidates and those with different work styles, thinking patterns and career histories.

The only way to move towards truly inclusive hiring is to address these common hiring biases within the talent acquisition team, all hiring managers, leadership and people managers.


The impact on inclusion and belonging

While many global corporates and other institutions make efforts to hire more diverse talent, the evidence suggests that our unintentional people preferences have a particular effect once people have been hired, impacting their sense of belonging.

Biases have a particular impact on:

  • Team relations: we are more likely to share information, listen to, and value the perspectives of colleagues who are in our in-group and those we have an affinity with, over those colleagues with whom we have a lesser emotional connection.
  • Work allocation: managers are more likely to assign key projects to individuals within their teams who they have an unconscious affinity with. This has a particular impact on skill development, exposure to senior leaders and thus future career opportunities.
  • Performance management: managers are more likely to spend time informally discussing contributions to the team and will focus on development and future work plans for those they feel an affinity with. On the flipside, where there is little affinity, managers are more likely to question past performance. The conversation will be less friendly and even hostile at times. Check out our training on detecting bias in your performance reviews.
  • Informal sponsorship: managers are more like to informally coach, mentor and sponsor colleagues who think and work like them, over colleagues who do not. Those with whom we have an affinity are likely to be advantaged by our own professional networks, who will support career sponsorship and advancement.

The biases that we see playing out within corporate life

  • The halo effect: first coined by the psychologist Edward Thorndike in 1920, Daniel Kahneman suggests that this is one of the most prevalent biases impacting human thinking, behaviours and decisions. The halo effect is a type of cognitive bias that impacts our overall impressions of an individual, based on often arbitrary factors. For example, individuals who are perceived to be attractive are often ascribed other, unrelated attributes, including sociability, trust and worthiness – key attributes we’d like from colleagues. Attractiveness, of course is a very subjective perception, based on cultural norms. There is therefore a clear race-based element to the halo effect. The halo effect impacts our overall evaluation of a person’s character based on a single, and unrelated trait.
  • Source bias: some people’s voices have more power than others. When evaluating colleagues and considering them for new projects or promotions, the viewpoints of individuals with greater authority will carry more weight within the decision-making process. Leaders may have a particular view of one individual over another simply due to levels of exposure, and their positive or negative viewpoint could very well be a determinant on who gets that next big promotion. Source bias also impacts our sources of information. Colleagues will often ask for a second opinion to expand their own viewpoints – the problem is, they tend to ask colleagues from within their own network, and far too often these are individuals who look, sound and think in a very similar way to them.
  • Attribution error: fundamental attribution error is a classic bias that causes colleagues to underestimate the influence of external social situations on other people’s behaviour, while also overestimating the influence of personality-based factors. For example, we may have a colleague who is late for work on a regular basis, and we assume that this is a personality issues – that they are disorganised with their time. Due to ‘situational blindness’ we could miss the fact that rather than being a factor of their character, this individual has caring responsibilities at home, which impacts their ability to arrive at the office at a regular time each day.

In addition to these ‘general’ cognitive biases, there are several gender-specific biases that impact both women and men’s careers. In a Harvard Business Review paper entitled Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers, Herminia Ibarra and colleagues identify the often subtle ‘second-generation’ forms of workplace gender bias.

Amongst the most prevalent forms of second-generation gender bias are:

  • A paucity of role models for women: women simply do not have the number of senior role models in the same way as male colleagues moving up the organisational pipeline do. The lack of visible role models sends negative messages to both male and female talent about the roles and positions of women in organisations.
  • Gendered career paths: despite efforts made through flexible and agile working practices, current organisational structures and working patterns continue to fit more easily around men’s lives. The idea of a (female) supporting spouse is prevalent in many work sectors including, but most definitely not limited to, legal, professional services and sales. The glass ceiling is real in many industries.
  • Women’s lack of access to networks and sponsors: men in positions of power tend to provide direct development opportunities to junior men, often through direct sponsorship. Junior men are also more likely to have access to informal mentors and thus women’s connections tend to be less efficacious.
  • Double binds: the types of attributes we ascribe to the ideal leader in most organisations are closely linked to positive male characteristics: decisive, assertive and independent. A number of research studies have shown that women who excel in traditional male domains may be viewed as competent, but when they demonstrate similar leadership traits, they are seen as less likeable to their male colleagues. In short, the types of behaviours that we often value in men, such as self-confidence, is perceived as arrogance in women.

5 ways to mitigate bias

Evidence shows that, with effort, individuals can learn to mitigate their automatic thinking processes, and over a longer period of time, re-wire their thinking patterns. Effective ways to mitigate bias include:

  • Employing people analytics: collect, track and analyse data to identify trends and patterns covering a wide range of decision-making areas from hiring to project allocation, time with senior leaders or time with clients (formal and informal). Tracking to identify bias at each stage of decision-making processes helps organisations to identify issues and then put in place mitigation programmes.
  • Reviews and checklists for decision-making: research tells us that using checklists for decision-making helps to mitigate bias in a number of areas. Organisations should therefore introduce ‘blind’ decision making across a range of people decisions, such as job descriptions and leadership assessment criteria. Agreeing a set of decision-making criteria and using a scoring system for talent selection programmes, can help remove bias from the process.
  • Introduce neutral observers: bringing in ‘devil’s advocates’ across a range of decision-making areas, including recruitment, performance reviews and talent selection can be highly effective, if these individuals are skilled in bias spotting and are free to call out assumptions and biases within decision making situations. For such a process to work, high levels of group trust and psychological safety are required.
  • Challenge group norms: consciously work towards diversity in team meetings, on client project teams, and at client pitches. Don’t play the game of tokenism. Ensure all colleagues are given equal quality airtime. Organisations should also introduce rules for inclusive decision-making, such as asking for ideas on paper or emails before meetings. Adopt the principle of amplification, for example questioning all-white or all-male conference panels, client teams or access to speaking opportunities.
  • Increase transparency in decision-making: sharing information on diversity and representation at work increases accountability and is likely to affect behaviours as well as decision-making. Individuals who know that they are likely to be held accountable for their own decisions are more likely to adopt inclusive decision-making. Introduce a range of targets and KPIs and ask department heads to publish data on gender recruitment, retention and promotions.

In a Harvard Business Review article entitled Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions, the authors warn us of the dangers of ‘emotional tagging,’ a process by which colleagues attach emotional information to their thoughts and the views of other people, resulting in unconscious biases. Psychologists refer to unconscious bias as our unintentional people preferences that result from the processes of socialisation and social categorisation. Studies from neuroscience have demonstrated that when the unconscious brain sees two things occurring together (for example, men in leadership roles) it begins to wire these associations together neurologically. Constant exposure to images and stories of men as leaders via the media, and through our personal encounters and work environments, re-enforce these neuro connections, resulting in what is often referred to as ‘hard-wired’ bias. The good news is we can make a conscious decision to rewire ourselves and become intentional about limiting and eventually removing unconscious bias from our workplaces. It isn’t easy, but most worthwhile endeavours rarely are!

Want to learn more about Unconscious Bias? 

Book a call with one of our Consultants for an informal chat about addressing the unconscious bias within your organisation and how you can move towards more inclusive hiring and inclusive leadership.


Dan Robertson

Dan Robertson is MD of FAIRER Consulting and Global Head of ED&I Advisory Services at Hays International. Over the last 15 years Dan has spent his time supporting global business leaders to transform their ideas into meaningful action, with a focus on inclusion as a strategic management issue, bias mitigation and inclusive leadership.